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Op-ed: Progress and a few poor messages from 2017 Legislature

Source: Salt Lake Tribune

Another 45 days have come and gone. During that time, more than 1,500 bill files were opened, and hundreds have been passed by the Utah Legislature on their way to becoming the law of the land (the not-so-public land, if the Legislature has its way).

Everyone involved — legislators, interns, lobbyists, even the cafeteria staff — is finally getting some much-needed sleep. But the Alliance for a Better Utah wanted to take a moment to look at the progress (or lack thereof) that we as a state have made over the past seven weeks.

This inversion season may not have been as bad as in years past, but the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus continued to find ways to make incremental progress to clean the air we all breathe. House Bill 134 from Rep. Patrice Arent requires Utah County to start testing diesel emissions, hoping to catch those modified vehicles belching particulate matter down our streets and highways. Legislators also approved Senate Bill 197, giving incentives to refineries upgrading to produce the Tier 3 fuel that will dramatically reduce vehicle emissions across the state.

Even though the lauded Justice Reinvestment Program has been suffering due to problems supporting the homeless and those suffering from substance abuse, legislators tried to improve our criminal justice system in other ways. Rep. Brian King passed a bill scaling back Good Landlord Programs in municipalities that were incentivizing landlords to deny renting to ex-convicts. Also passed was a “Ban the Box” bill from Rep. Sandra Hollins, which prohibits public employers from requiring job applicants to disclose their criminal history on initial applications. Both these bills give those who have paid their debt a fighting chance to re-enter the community as self-reliant members of society.

Unfortunately, the Utah Legislature has an addiction of its own — an addiction to unnecessary resolutions. Sometimes they seem harmless, or even positive — from commemorating the Lunar New Year to recognizing the value of refugees. But this session showed even nonbinding words have consequences. Not only do they consume significant time legislators could be using to discuss and vote on bills that would actually address issues and problems, they too often come at a huge cost to taxpayers.

Even as Outdoor Retailer was threatening to take its convention from the state over unnecessarily aggressive rhetoric, legislators pressed forward with HCR1, HCR11 and HCR12, all asking the federal government to dramatically change public lands ownership and monument status within our state. Outdoor Retailer followed through, vowing never to return after 2018, and our economy will now have to deal with losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars per year — all in the name of a series of nonbinding resolutions.

It also seems there are many within our state who do not recognize the importance of diverse opinions and collaboration with those who may not share similar backgrounds or viewpoints. Last year, the Legislature voted to upset a longtime partisan balance on two integral legislative committees. This year, the Legislature went further with HB11 and voted to allow the governor to entirely ignore party diversity on 28 state boards and commissions. It is not very hard to guess which party will soon have sole control over bodies that advise on issues ranging from air and water quality to alcohol policy.

Rep. Merrill Nelson also continued his war on judicial diversity this year, attempting to strip the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice from considering diversity that otherwise equally qualified candidates would bring to Utah’s judicial bench. Luckily, the Utah Senate recognized the benefits of judicial diversity and, unlike colleagues in the House, rejected the bill.

You win some, you lose some. That seems to be the mantra of just about everyone heading into the legislative session each year, and this year was no different. The list above only scratches the surface of what was done over the past 45 days. While there is much work ahead to address major issues facing our state, from education funding to air quality, criminal justice and more, each and every year our state is operating more transparently, with more accountability, and is reaching better decisions. And each year, we will continue working to make this place we all call home a better Utah.

Chase Thomas is policy and advocacy counsel for Alliance for a Better Utah.

Read The Salt Lake Tribune op-ed here.

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