2011 legislative wrapup

In a session of some possible threats to equal rights for gay and transgender Utahns, the legislative session was seen as a success by some. While no major ground was made, there have been some discussions and progress, said Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah.

“While the bills we supported were not passed, we’ve still made some great progress,” Balken said.

While no great steps forward in gay rights legislation were made, there were also no anti-gay bills that were passed, she said.  Some steps were taken to push for gay rights legislation that had never been taken in Utah, such as introducing an anti-discrimination bill in the Senate instead of the House.

Anti-discrimination bill

The push for a state-wide measure protecting employees and tenants against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation failed to even make it to a committee in the Senate. This was the first year the bill was introduced in the Utah Senate.

The bill was stuck in the rules committee in the Senate for nearly three weeks before a vote was finally scheduled to move it to the judiciary committee where public comment would be heard. The committee voted 5-2 to keep the bill, and not allow a public hearing or comment.

“We have a process here where people can create bills and then they are sifted. We will not hear every bill,” Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said. “There doesn’t seem to be the interest in rules committee to lift it out.”

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, appealed to the full Senate body to move the bill forward and open it up for public discussion. However, that measure failed in a 21-7 vote along party lines.

LaVar Christensen

At the beginning of the legislative session Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Sandy, introduced three bills that were not labeled or explicitly targeted at the gay community. However, many gay-rights activists, lobbyists and other representatives saw these bills as a direct threat to gay rights.

In what was deemed one of the biggest victories for gay-rights legislation in Utah for the year, all three of these bills were later pulled by the sponsor. In 2004, Christensen introduced the bill that later came to be known as Amendment 3, which defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman in the Utah constitution.

The first bill he sponsored in this session added a religious exemption to anti-discrimination bills. This would have attempted to usurp federal authority and it would have gutted the 11 anti-discrimination bills passed in Utah municipalities, said Balken.

The second bill introduced by Christensen would have voided all contracts that are against public policy. While no clear intent was stated, the bill could have been interpreted to void wills and other contracts between same-sex couples, Balken said.

The last bill Christen introduced stated that state agencies would have to focus on promoting families with a husband, wife and children. While this bill lacked any clear specifications as well, it could have been interpreted to block families with same-sex couples from participating in government programs, Balken said.

Second-parent adoptions

One of the few gay rights bills that made it to a committee hearing, a measure to allow for second parent adoptions was killed in a 5-1 vote. The lone supporter, Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, was not the only Democrat on the committee.

Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, voted against the measure.

“My own personal belief is that marriage should be between one man and one woman,” Jones said during the hearing. “I also believe that children are better with married couples.”

Many gay rights activists criticized Jones for siding with her Republican colleagues.

“Shame, shame, shame. You are a leader in the Democratic Party in the legislature — we expect more of you than Senator Buttars. Your reckless vote has hurt a lot of people to their very core,” wrote Equality Utah co-founder Jim Dabakis.

Opponents to the bill said it was just one step closer to same-sex marriage. If Utah passes the bill, it is likely that gay-rights opponents could use it as an excuse to push for legal marriage recognition said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum.

The bill would have allowed a parent to designate a second parent for their children and would not require that the two parents be married. This bill would have allowed same-sex couples to adopt children.

HIV Testing for alleged sex offenders

A bill which would require alleged sex offenders to be tested for HIV passed through both the House and Senate with very little debate.

The bill allows victims of sexual assault to request that their alleged attackers be tested for HIV before a conviction is made. The bill is designed to help a victim of sexual assault know whether he or she has been exposed to the HIV virus, said the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Richard Greenwood, R-Roy. It would allow the victim an opportunity to choose whether or not to begin taken drugs to stop the virus. These drugs can sometimes have adverse side effects such as nausea and fatigue.

However, the ACLU of Utah strongly opposes the bill based on constitutional issues. The bill would invade someone’s privacy and not only disclose that information to the police, but also to the public, said Marina Lowe, with the Legislative and Policy Council of the ACLU of Utah.

The bill also could  have some unintended consequences if the wrong person is accused and a full trial is unable to be conducted, Lowe said.

“Just because a victim of sexual assault thinks a defendant is guilty, doesn’t actually mean that person is,” Lowe said. “If someone tests negative, and is later found to be innocent. The victim could have chosen to not take the medication while the real perpetrator is positive. This scenario could result in the unnecessary infection of a victim.”

Also, many health officials have expressed concern because anti-body HIV tests are not always accurate. There is a six-month window between the time someone is exposed to the virus and when it will appear on a test, said Nicholas Rupp, the public information specialist for the Salt Lake Valley Health Department.

Liquor Law Changes

A bill passed through the House and Senate with very little debate or opposition will bring more liquor licenses to restaurants, change liquor service times in restaurants and eliminate the sale of mini-kegs. The bill also outlawed daily drink specials.

The bill was designed to make people eat when they drink and discourage people from overdrinking, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem. The bill would add 40 available restaurant licenses; 15 full-liquor licenses and 25 beer and wine licenses. The measure also created an unlimited amount of licenses for restaurants that wanted to serve only beer.

The bill, which is 174 pages long, also has many other stipulations, some of which include the following:

  • Drinks can be purchased by the glass in hotels from room service.
  • The bill prohibits events from selling or furnishing an indefinite or unlimited number of alcoholic drinks for a fixed price. This essentially kills the current functioning of the City Weekly Beer Fest.
  • Gives the governor the responsibility of appointing the chair of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
  • Increases the number of officers to enforce drunken driving laws.

The state budget also calls for major cuts to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The state will be closing 13 Utah liquor stores. The budget requires the DABC to cut $1.6 million and would also change store hours so they close at 7 and 8 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. Approximately 150 people will lose their jobs with the cuts. All of the stores that are closing reported earnings last year.

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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