It can be tough to know if your legislators are doing a good job. State representatives tend to slide under the radar, and local elections just aren’t as sexy! We get it, but we also believe supporting good local candidates is the way to make your vote go the distance.
Our 2019 Progress Report can help you know how your elected officials are doing. After reading through every single bill passed by the Legislature this year, we narrowed it down to the 59 most important ones, and organized them into four categories: Strong Communities, Equal Rights, Good Government, and Sustainable Future. Lawmakers received grades for each of these individual categories as well as a composite overall score.
On average, the House and Senate both got C grades. Rep. Patrice Arent and Sen. Jani Iwamoto both came first in their class, while Rep. Marc Roberts was the only legislator this year to get an overall F.
Overall, lawmakers did well in Strong Communities, and performed the most poorly in Good Government and Sustainable Future. There were some big wins and big losses, but on the whole, this legislative session leaves me with a lot of hope for where we’re headed as a state.
Leg Session Takeaways
The biggest losses most of us already know. Lawmakers gutted full Medicaid expansion approved directly by the voters and changed the entire ballot initiative process to make it more difficult. They gave a green light for Energy Solutions to store nuclear waste in Utah and mandated another investment in a deep sea port to export coal. They blocked multiple bills to keep Utahns safe from gun violence, and instead supported a bill making it easier to shoot someone in an altercation. And they passed some punitive abortion bills, one of which will cost the state millions to be inevitably struck down in court.
But I want to talk more about this year’s wins: criminal justice reform, air quality, and even LGBTQ rights.
Criminal Justice Reform– In my opinion, this was the biggest win we saw this year. The Legislature passed a number of solid criminal justice reforms, resulting in (among other things) all minors having access to an attorney, automatic expungement of low-level crimes, preventing automatic deportation for immigrants convicted of misdemeanors, and prohibitions on shackling pregnant inmates during labor.
Many of these bills were sponsored by Republicans. You can see it as part of a larger movement on the right, shifting away from an old-school “tough on crime” approach to compassionate criminal justice reforms. It’s one of the most gratifying trends we’ve seen in the past few years. That’s a bipartisan movement we can all get behind.
Air Quality- This session began with Gov. Herbert allotting $100 million in his budget to deal with air pollution, and ended with the Legislature appropriating $28 million to deal with air pollution. Sure, that’s not as much as the Governor recommended, but as Clean Air Caucus leader Rep. Patrice Arent noted, it’s a lot more than we usually get. Lawmakers are *finally* starting to take air quality concerns seriously–and with the Inland Port development just around the corner, it’s coming at a crucial time.
This year’s air quality project include increasing UTA free fare days during the inversion, promoting telecommuting centers, replacing old state vehicles, and monitoring pollution levels from the Inland Port.
LGBTQ rights– It’s easy to write this category off as a loss this year. One scary bill would have banned legal changes of gender, and a bill banning conversion therapy for minors was sabatoged in a fiasco that ended with Gov. Herbert issuing a written apology to young LGBTQ activists.
But the more I think about it, the more I believe this year brought us meaningful change in the right direction. The conversion therapy ban will be coming back next year, and I am convinced most lawmakers have learned from their mistakes and are ready to do the right thing. It can take time for legislators to learn, and as frustrating as that can be, by the end of the session we saw some individuals have a change of heart on what it means to protect LGBTQ Utahns.
The most profound example of this might be Rep. Merrill Nelson. He began the session sponsoring the terrible gender change bill (which he later pulled.) He ended the session by voting for a bill that included penalty enhancements for hurting someone because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Nelson has opposed hate crimes bills in the past. But he gave a speech in favor of this bill on the House floor speaking about people who are at risk just because of who they are. Nelson said, “I hear people say, ‘Well I’m not included on the list. None of those categories covers me. Rather than complain about not being included, we should probably give thanks that we’re not included.” Utah now has a hate crimes law that, while flawed, will take homophobic and transphobic violence more seriously.
At the end of the day, the legislative session is always a mixed bag. And the Progress Report is only as good (or as damning) as the bills that make it through the legislative session. We hope this will be a tool useful to you now and in the future, as we elect representatives committed to moving Utah forward.