2008 Legislative Wrap-Up

The 2008 General Legislative Session came to an end on March 5. For your edification, and to help you prepare for the interim session this summer, QSaltLake provides a summary of bills introduced in the past session that were particularly relevant to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utahns. Some were passed, some defeated and some may be heard again in later months.

Bullying and Hazing: Authored by Assistant Minority Whip Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, HB 325 sought to set uniform, minimum statewide standards to help public school districts and charter schools address and prevent all forms of bullying, hazing or retaliation for reporting either. The bill initially stumbled in the House Education Committee when some members voiced concerns that the bill’s definition of bullying was too vague and its prohibitions gave schools too little freedom in setting their own anti-bullying policies and the state too much control. The bill was amended on Feb. 20 to tighten its definition of bullying (limiting it only to physical harm perpetrated by an employee or student against another employee or student). It then left the committee.

HB 325 substitute 1 passed the House on a vote of 59-8 with eight absent on Feb. 28. On March 4 it passed the Senate on a vote of 25-2 with two absent after an amendment was introduced that removed language requiring school officials to report incidents of bullying to an authority designated in the school’s individual anti-bullying policy. Language was also removed that encouraged parents and students who witness bullying to make a report.

Local gay rights group Equality Utah drafted the first version of the bill. The group hoped the bill would be used in part to help schools crack down on anti-gay and anti-transgender bullying, as youths in these categories statistically face higher rates of bullying than their straight and cisgender counterparts.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases:
Rep. Phil Reisen, D-Salt Lake City, wrote HB 15 Control and Prevention of Sexually Transmitted Diseases to help the Utah Health Department and local health departments educate Utahns about the health consequences of and treatment options for gonorrhea and chlamydia. Rates of both STDs have dramatically risen in Utah over the past twelve years.

Reisen’s bill initially asked for an appropriation of $350,000 to fund these efforts, which included distribution of materials about both diseases in English and Spanish. Amendments to the bill slashed that figure in half and tweaked language to ensure the funding would only go towards prevention and treatment of gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Early in the bill’s life embattled Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, also proposed an amendment that prevented public schools and private services and agencies from being involved with the effort. On Feb. 8 Buttars told the Senate that he’d proposed the amendment to prevent organizations such as Planned Parenthood from going into the public schools.

Although Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, argued that such an amendment would cut out several private services that help state health departments control STDs (such as private doctors’ offices), HB 15’s senate sponsor, Allen M. Christensen, R-North Ogden, accepted Buttars’ amendment as “friendly.” The bill was amended later in the session to allow public health officials to “suggest screening by a private physician.”

The bill passed both houses.

Child Abandonment:
One bill that may have unintended consequences for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utah youth sailed through both houses early in the session. Rep. Lori Fowlke’s HB 23 Child and Family Protections sought to make child abandonment a third degree felony and to hold those who encourage or coerce parents to kick out their children guilty as well.

Although Fowlke said that the bill was intended to target leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responsible for kicking teenage boys (whom the national media has dubbed “The Lost Boys”) out of their compounds, Equality Utah has said the bill could be used to hold parents who abandon gay and transgender children as well.

Fowlke, R-Orem, ran a version of HB 23 in the 2007 legislative session but the Senate was not able to get to the bill before the session’s end. This time, it passed both houses with little debate.

Adoption: One of the most controversial bills introduced this session, HB 318 Utah Adoption Amendments sought to grant same-sex couples and unmarried straight couples the right to adopt children. As of 2000, only legally married couples and single men and women have been able to adopt in Utah.

Sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, HB 318 never made it out of the House Rules Committee, the body which assigns bills to legislative standing committees for debate. Although Equality Utah and several families headed by same-sex parents rallied at the capitol on several occasions, some committee members – Rep. Mark Walker, R-Sandy, in particular – said that the bill would not be assigned.

““It really just comes down to my belief that gay couples shouldn't be able to adopt children,” Walker told the Salt Lake Tribune in late February.

Chavez-Houck has said she will reintroduce the bill in the next session.

Employment Discrimination: Drafted by Equality Utah and sponsored by openly lesbian Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City HB 89 Antidiscrimination Act Amendments sought to make it illegal for Utah employers to refuse to hire, promote, demote or fire an employee based on his or her real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Religious organizations and businesses (such as Brigham Young University) would be exempt.

After a much-publicized public hearing on Jan. 26 the House Business and Labor Committee voted to hold the bill until the summer interim session to allow them more time to study its possible ramifications for Utah employers.

After the hearing Johnson said the committee’s decision to put the bill aside for the time being had not discouraged her.

“I think the committee handled the matter in a compassionate way and I respect that,” she told QSaltLake at the time.

Equality Utah is hopeful that the bill will be revisited this summer.

Since the bill’s introduction on Capitol Hill several gay and transgender employees have spoken to the press about being fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Current Utah law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, age (if the individual is over 40 years old), childbirth or pregnancy status, religion, national origin and disability.

Dating Violence: Rep. David Litvak’s HB 247 Domestic Violence and Dating Violence Amendments sought to help victims of dating violence to file protective orders against their abusers, regardless of the victim and perpetrators’ sexual orientation or gender identity or whether or not the couple is married or living together.

The Salt Lake City Democrat, who has introduced similar legislation on the Hill in the past three sessions, explained to Representatives that his bill was necessary because victims of dating violence cannot easily get protective orders. He also noted that 32 percent of Utah teens have experienced dating violence.

Although Litvak amended HB 247 to raise the age of those eligible for protective orders from 16 to 18, it failed in the house on a vote of 32 to 37. Several Representatives who voted against the bill cited concerns over Second Amendment Rights as their reason for doing so. Specifically, the possibility that those accused of dating violence under Litvak’s bill might have their right to bear arms restricted for up to two weeks as they wait for a due process hearing after a protective order is filed.
Property and Estates: Openly gay Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, introduced SB 73 Wrongful Death Amendments, a bill that would have allowed people to designate which individuals have legal standing in terms of their estates if they die due to medical negligence or malpractice.

Utah law currently does not allow anyone who isn’t a legal spouse or a child to be designated in these cases. Additionally the law doesn’t allow one relative to be designated – any or all eligible relatives can sue.

After much debate on whether McCoy’s bill would allow adulterous lovers to sue for wrongful death or if the ability to name designees would dilute the claims of spouses or children in such suits, the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee gave the bill a favorable recommendation. After nearly a month of inaction on the Senate floor, however, the bill was returned to the Senate Rules Committee on Feb. 27.

Salt Lake City Domestic Partner Registry:
After the Salt Lake City Council unanimously approved Mayor Ralph Becker’s proposal to create a registry for unmarried, financially dependant partners in the capitol city, two bills aimed at limiting this registry appeared on Capitol Hill.

SB 267 introduced by Sen. Buttars would have crushed the registry and possibly crippled an insurance plan allowing city employees to name non-spousal adult designees. After a highly publicized and emotional public hearing the Senate Rules Committee passed this bill out with a favorable recommendation. The bill got no further than that, however, and was sent back to the Rules Committee in late February.

SB 299 replaced Buttars’ bill. Sponsored by Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, this bill was touted as a kinder, gentler compromise. After several amendments, it allowed the registry to stand in all but name and left the adult designee insurance plan alone.

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