June Interim Session Watch + Special Session Review!

The June Interim and Special Session of the Utah Legislature has ended, leaving behind it several noteworthy moments. Check out our topics: Public Lands, Death Penalty, School Funding and Liquor Licenses.

Public Lands

Although liquor licenses and school funding were the primary topics on the Hill, there were several other issues brought before the Legislature. Governor Herbert’s Public Lands director, Kathleen Clarke, bent over backwards to adopt the same unconstitutional stance on United States-owned land as the more extreme members of the Legislature. She and Representative Ivory (R, West Jordan) gave a joint presentation to several of the interim committees on how the land-grab initiative is progressing.

Better UTAH attended these meetings, hoping that we might finally see a concrete plan of how exactly Utah is going to force the United States to turn over its own land, but unfortunately it turned out that Clarke and Ivory’s “presentations” were little more than a rehashing of the same talking points we’ve been hearing for months now.

The more interesting moments came when Director Clarke and Representative Ivory took questions from the Interim Education Committee. Outgoing-Senator Karen Morgan (D, Cottonwood Heights) asked the simple question of whether or not either Kathleen Clarke or Representative Ivory could name how much money Utah is currently receiving from the United States because of the public lands within our boundaries. Despite having had months (if not years) to study the issue, neither Clarke or Ivory were aware that Utah currently receives nearly $300 Million every year from the US Government, plus an additional $1.7 Billion annually in tourism dollars on our public lands which would dry up quickly if they are sold off to mega corporations.

But Senator Morgan wasn’t done there; she probed deeper asking why we should trust the Republican Legislators to put any money into public education. “[Even if this were to somehow succeed] and we got all this revenue that you’re describing, would we really put that money into education? Because there have been times when our economy is strong, yet we haven’t taken those dollars and put them into education the way that we could have.”

Senator Morgan followed that up with one last zinger on these ridiculous bills, pointing out the obvious flaw in the conservative argument that Utah can’t pay for our public education because we don’t have enough private land. “I believe that Utah has 3-times the amount of private land that the state of Massachusetts does,” said Morgan, “and yet they have the highest, or close to the highest, funding for public education in the country.”

Representative Patrice Arent (D, Millcreek) picked up the torch from there, bringing up the most obvious flaw in the Republicans’ plan, that the Legislature’s own attorney stated on the record that their bills are unconstitutional, and are highly likely to end up doing little more than wasting years and millions of our taxpayer dollars on expensive lawsuits which we’ll lose anyway. The Republicans have tried to back away from talk about the pending lawsuit recently, after a Dan Jones Poll revealed that more than 60% of Utahns are opposed to such frivolous spending of their money. Now the GOP has moved on to claims that somehow they can high-pressure the United States into giving up its own land if they can get several other western states to gang up with them.

Representative Arent pushed back there as well, asking which western states were actually going to jump on the bandwagon. Director Clarke immediately pointed to Arizona, whose legislature ran and passed bills based on ours recently. Unfortunately for Director Clarke, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer immediately vetoed those bills, not wanting to get her state caught up in an un-winnable legal battle with the United States.

Once educated about the actual costs of the Legislature’s bid to steal land from the United States, the people of Utah have overwhelmingly said they want the Legislature to drop it. But interestingly enough, the Conservatives have, to this point, managed to keep the worst news out of the eye of the public: We’re going to have to pay for this lawsuit twice. We are suing ourselves. As both Utahns and Americans, it is the taxpayers of this state will be forced to pay for both the offense and the defense while the conservatives in the Utah Legislature wage their political rhetoric battle. We, as Utahns, need to realize that it’s not just the $3 Million of our Utah tax dollars that we’re going to have to shell out for this, we also have to pay the (minimum of) $3 Million in our federal taxes for the other side.

Death Penalty

The Law Enforcement Committee had some interesting discussions. Most in attendance came to hear the review of the License Plate Reader policy, which, fortunately, turned out to be a non-issue. The real surprise came during the portion of the meeting reserved for suggestions on future studies, as Representative Steve Handy (R, Layton) raised the unexpected issue of the Death Penalty. He gave a thoughtful presentation on the issues, not only raising the moral concerns but also presenting several economic and judicial points to support his request for a study.  It was interesting to learn that after conducting their own studies, 15 states have banned the death penalty, while more continue to study the issue.

It was clear that the committee was not all together in their views of the Death Penalty as some, such as Rep. Greg Hughes (R, Layton) offered supportive comments, while others, including committee chair Sen. Todd Weiler (R, Bountiful) were obvious opponents.

In the end, the committee took the issue under advisement and it remains to be seen whether they will decide to study the issue or just ignore the request. But after hearing Rep. Handy’s sincere and thoughtful presentation and reviewing the facts and statistics presented, it was clear that while this may be a controversial issue, it is time for Utahns to start having this difficult discussion.

Public Education Funding

The $25 Million dollar gap in public education funding, a result of the Utah Department of Education being forced to do all of their accounting on spreadsheets,rather than actual accounting software, was plugged quickly and with much fanfare. One-time monies were allocated from several different sources of unappropriated funds, including the General Fund, the MSP and Education Funds for fiscal years 2011 and 2012, as well as the fiscal year 2013 Education Fund budget.

Liquor Licenses

The last big topic, and one of the primary reason Governor Herbert called for a special session, was alcohol licenses. It is no secret that the Republicans in the Utah Legislature have consistently done their best over the years to force their own morality on the citizens of Utah by severely limiting the number of bars, clubs and even restaurants that can serve alcohol. But that forced-morality has finally caught up with them, as the news came out last month that there are several dozen restaurants that have applied for liquor licenses so they can open their businesses, only to find that no licenses are available. In addition, several national restaurant chains have testified that while they would like to expand into Utah, the Legislature’s refusal to increase the number of available licenses makes it impossible for them to bring their business here. One big example is the Darden Restaurant Group, whose originally plan was for 12 locations in Utah bringing an estimated $40 Million in sales as well as $2.7 Million in taxes. Darden later scrapped their plan of moving in after their requests for licenses were denied.

But now it seems we’ve finally reached a tipping point, and Senator Valentine (R, Orem), the self-imposed czar of Utah liquor policy, sponsored the bill to add 90 additional licenses. It’s a top-gap measure to be sure, but at least it’s something for now and is hopefully a sign that the Legislature is beginning to realize their line-in-the-sand over liquor is at odds with their much-touted pro-business position.

Although the bill passed both the Senate and the House easily, and is expected to be signed by the Governor, the move didn’t sit well with many of Utah’s more extreme conservatives in the House, who betrayed their usual rallying behind free-market principles in favor of big-government dictatorial control. “Should the free market really be our guiding principle here?” said Representative LaVar Christensen (R, Draper) as he argued that Utah shouldn’t be in the business of making it easier for people to exercise their freedom to drink. “This just isn’t what Utah should be about,” added Representative Draxler (R, Ogden).

It was truly a sight to watch, as these Representatives who all-too-often can be seen towing the tea-party line that the free market should rule all, so easily abandon those principles in favor of using their positions of power within the State Government to attempt to force Utahns to comply to with their own personal moral choices.

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