Legislative session ‘one for the history books’Apr 15, 2021 09:47AM ● By Zak Sonntag
The Utah State Capitol hosts a hybrid session unlike any before it. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)
By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]
Utah’s 45-day legislative session came to an end in March with the passage of 502 bills, which, if signed by the governor, will attempt to address a host of issues facing the state, from the mundane and administrative to the hotly contentious and narrowly victorious. In that regard, this session was nothing new, but in many other ways this year’s pandemic-induced hybrid process was unlike any before it.
The capitol’s corridors were retrofitted and its cafeteria repurposed to accommodate distanced deliberation, and committee hearings were predominantly remote affairs, which can be an impediment in a field where personal touches, body language and nonverbal communication convey volumes.
“Before, it was easier to read people’s faces and get a sense of where they’re coming from. Instead we were Facetiming and Zooming and phone calls. It was more difficult, to feel out where they are and get people behind something cohesively,” said Sen. Kathleen Riebe, one of Holladay’s five representatives to the state legislature.
Beyond pandemic adjustment, albeit, the session entailed other irregularities, like a high-alert atmosphere seeping in from the political discord on the national stage. Coming on the heels of a turbulent presidential transition that ended in an assault of the U.S. Capitol, Utah intelligence and law enforcement officials had reason to suspect that partisan anger was eager to express itself at Utah’s own state capitol. Hence, precautions were taken.
“A lot of the protestors had weapons, so there were patrol men everyone. You couldn’t come in or out of the Capitol without passing five or six UHP officers. There was a sense of fear and anxiety going into it for all those reasons,” said Carol Spackman-Moss, Holladay’s longest serving representative to the state.
In the end, however, anxiety settled down. And if the session was initially “a little more divisive in ways, especially on social issues,” according to Sen. Jani Iwamoto, the legislators nonetheless returned to their roles as problem solvers and embodied the comity for which Utah’s statehouse is known.
“It’s a more collegial group than I was expecting. And I was impressed with everyone’s willingness to work together. Sometimes we got off-kilter with the tone of issues, but we found a lot of common ground,” said Holladay Rep. Doug Owens, who worked across the aisle with the divisive Southern Utah legislator Phil Lyman to pass a bill laying the groundwork for a visitor center at the Bears Ears National Monument.
Though Owens is a first-year member, he says he’s “been around politics all my life” as the son of former U.S. Congressmen Wayne Owens. So far he’s doing a good job of making a seamless transition to the role by sponsoring and passing a Holocaust education bill that his predecessor, powerhouse Patrice Arent, championed before retiring in 2020.
Holladay’s state representatives uniformly agreed there were three major areas of success this session, including bills related to police reform, education and infrastructure.
Iwamoto is a veteran at the capitol with a reputation for building big coalitions.
Iwamoto sponsored a series of police reform bills whose sweeping support was a testament to the appetite amongst legislators to improve policing in our state after a series of local and national incidents of officer misconduct sparked droves of protests.
Iwamoto’s Internal Investigations bill requires law enforcement agencies to provide records related to peace officer conduct to entities where a peace officer implicated in investigation seeks employment with outside agencies or private companies. The bill will increase transparency and “make sure if there is a bad cop we get rid of him, because there’s nothing good cops hate more than a bad cop,” Iwamoto said.
The bill passed with unanimous consent.
Iwamoto also worked on reform bills around campus safety, which promote information sharing between campus police and outside agencies. “Students need to know who to contact and communication needs to be seamless,” she said.
Holladay’s legislators were also excited about changes in education. Though they expressed ambivalence toward Amendment G—which opened up the income-tax silo, traditionally used exclusively for public education, to be used for additional needs including mental health programs—they were nonetheless happy that it triggered a companion bill which mandates funding increases to match student enrollment growth.
“I think the majority [party] is finally convinced that we have to pay better salaries to educators because we have a teacher shortage. And it’s even worse in the current situation because some have left and they aren’t coming back. We can’t even find full-time subs to replace them,” said Spackman-Moss, who had a career as a teacher and is powerful voice on the Education Committee.
The education funding was in part possible because of an unanticipated budget surplus heading into 2021, which ran contrary to 2020 projections by fiscal analysts. Utah’s diversified and growing economy continues to outperform other states even in the pandemic. Additionally, federal funds made available through stimulus legislation was put to good work in ways that promise to deliver for students into the future—including a major broadband expansion projects that bring online learning and a host of other benefits to many of Utah’s rural communities.
“We’ve increased bandwidth to bring broadband equity to all corners of our state. I would be surprised what other state had better bandwidth equity considering how many rural communities we have,” said Riebe, who works as a technology specialist for the Granite School Board. “We’ve been working on this for five years, laying all the groundwork, and finally it came together. Although partly for the wrong reasons in the sense that it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to get support, because it’s not just a school issue. It’s a telehealth issue, it’s a business issue, and it’s a mental health issue,” said Riebe.
Even if the money pot was flush, legislators had to work hard to move their priorities through both houses, and fighting upstream is something Holladay’s five representatives ought be accustomed to, considering they’re all Democrats swimming in the sea of a Republican super majority. Being the minority party requires skillsets and tactics beyond those of their counterparts. The art of alliance forming, for instance, is crucial.
“As a Democrat, you can’t ram things through. If you have two Democrats running a bill it will never fly. So when I’m in committee I say to my colleagues I’ll do anything to make bills better. I call my bills ‘stone soup,’ because they get a lot of love and a lot of people behind them,” said Riebe.
Still, for Democrats, it’s an uphill battle, and representatives like Riebe can often walk away from a session with a string of devastating defeats, sometimes hinging on the vote of a single Republican powerbroker.
“There are times when [interest groups] want to kill a bill and they can sway the right person. There are some legislators who can pretty much kill a bill by themselves,” Riebe said.
Riebe devoted much into a consumer protection bill that put controls on emergency clean-up crews, like businesses who clean up accidental deaths and suicides.
“I had a constituent who couldn’t pay and they put a lien on her house. People going through turmoil and tragedy shouldn’t be price gouged. But a certain legislator stood up and said that wasn’t the capitalistic way,” Riebe said, expressing dismay that the bill was killed.
Holladay’s Democratic reps have also learned the importance of playing defense; it’s not just about what you pass but what you block from passage. By using alliances wisely, they feel like they’re able to call in favors on occasions when they really oppose something.
“Even though we don’t pass a lot, we stop a lot of bad stuff. And if you look at the numbers the ratio we passed the same number—it’s a tough process,” Riebe said.
That’s not to say that Holladay’s dems are always happy with legislative outcomes—far from it—and they grinned and bared it through a variety of bills they found hard to stomach, including an election law reform bill that makes it difficult for non-party affiliates to participate in Republican primary elections; as well as a rollback of training requirements for concealed carry weapons permit.
“I disagreed with doing away with training for concealed carry permits—I think it’s a good thing to have a few extra hours of training for that, and I don’t think it’s a material burden on the right to bear arms,” said Owens.
Whether passing bills or blocking them, laws demand an enormous amount of work from many legislators, often to unsung glory. While each bill only has two sponsors, one from the House and Senate, respectively, there are enumerable hours of committee hearings, amendment proposals, research and team building behind the scenes. This is something that first-year Holladay House Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion spoke on.
“I didn’t have any of my personally sponsored bills make it through, but before coming to congress I’d been part of women’s state legislative council for seven years—so I’m familiar with how sessions work and know that bills can take years of work before getting passed,” said Bennion.
Bennion is a member of the Natural Resources Committee, and was instrumental in the passage of bills creating two state parks—including Utah Raptor State Park and Lost Creek State Park.
“These places were being used like state parks but without facilities so petroglyphs and artifacts are compromised. This will help with signage to remind people to be culturally sensitive, and lets us manage those areas in ways that are better for long-term use for visitors and the environment,” Bennion said.
Bennion also helped move through a water-metering bill that encourages secondary water services—like the Holladay Water Company—to help customers meter their water use at no additional cost, hoping to promote conservation without consumer burden. She also helped pass a Colorado River commission bill which creates a body to study and charge to increase the efficaciousness of the way Utah taps its water allotment from a shared source that sustains much of the western United States.
Despite the strangeness of this year’s session, Holladay’s legislative reps seemed overall pleased with the session’s outcome, and were happy that the public got involved, too.
“I feel like there was more public involvement. Before, people have to drive in from all over the state, find parking and get there on time. You didn’t have to do that with our remote sessions, so we heard from many constituents,” said Iwamoto, who was the sole legislator to attend the entire session remotely out of concern for her 93-year-old mother after whom she cares. The Senate gave Iwamoto a standing ovation for the feat.
Of the session at large, Spackman-Moss put it succinctly: “This is one for the history books.”