Rebounding off of Salt Lake City being crowned the Gayest City in America, the pronouncement will be put to test in the upcoming legislative session. Utah lawmakers will convene on Capitol Hill Jan. 23-March 8; with topics ranging from reforming the Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control to statewide nondiscrimination ordinances, there’s plenty to watch for this year at the Legislature.
The drive to protect employees and tenants from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity started in 2008 by openly lesbian Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City. The bills were part of the Common Ground Initiative, sponsored by Equality Utah, focusing on legislation that would be seen as fair and just by most Utahns, regardless of political party. At the height of tension between the queer community and the LDS Church due to an effort to ban same-sex marriage in California through Proposition 8, EU and others fought to find common ground with the Mormon Church and Republican legislators.
The bills never made it to the floor. Although in 2008 and 2009 it did make it to a committee hearing.
After Salt Lake City passed similar ordinances in December 2009, with the blessing of the LDS Church, the momentum to have statewide protections was palpable. However, in a controversial move, Johnson chose to table the bills as part of a compromise with Republican leaders. As part of the agreement, all queer related bills were put on hold in exchange for allowing Salt Lake City and other municipalities to keep their own measures.
More than a dozen Utah cities and counties have since enacted nondiscrimination ordinances, which forbid landlords with four or more units and employers with 15 or more employees from eviction, termination or refusal to hire based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. However, religious organizations, such as the LDS Church, are exempt.
Johnson did not seek another term after the 2010 session and moved to lead Equality South Carolina. Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, who replaced openly gay Sen. Scott McCoy in late 2009, took up the bill and tried to take it to the floor in 2011. Despite repeated efforts, McAdams, a straight, married member of the LDS Church could not get any traction and the bill was not debated.
“I think there is room in our Utah community to offer protections at work and at home for members of the gay community that doesn’t compromise the values of other members of the Utah community,” McAdams said. “I think we can have protections and we can value religious liberty at the same time.”
This year, McAdams and other Democrats are hoping to take a more bipartisan approach and are looking for a Republican sponsor in the House. Recent polling data indicate that three out of four Utahns support extending the protections statewide.
“We are very committed to make sure that (the nondiscrimination bill) gets a hearing,” minority leader Sen. Ross Romero said. “It’s my job as a minority leader not to carry a lot of bills because it’s my job to make sure my caucus’ bills get heard.”
The anti-bias ordinances have not been drafted and are not scheduled for any hearings.
Since 2000, unmarried Utah couples, including same-sex partners, have been unable to legally adopt children. Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck has opposed this measure, and in 2008 she introduced a bill that would allow for second-parent adoptions. It was defeated in committee that year and in 2009. In 2010 the bill was tabled as part of the compromise Johnson struck with Republicans.
The same bill was run in 2011 and was openly debated in committee; however, it was killed by the Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Pat Jones, voted against it. Jones’ opposition to the bill labeled her a traitor by some queer-rights activists.
“I hear the horrific stories of where a child knows two individuals and the biological mom or dad dies and this other partner, who this child knows, has no legal right to that child,” Chavez-Houck said. “I can’t imagine being in that situation, having lost one parent and the other parent isn’t your parent. I think that’s a horrible thing to do to a family.”
While the law still affects straight couples who are not married, they have the right to marry, unlike their gay counterparts.
Romero pledged to push for another hearing of the second-parent adoption bill, which conservative groups such as the Sutherland Institute and the Utah Eagle Forum strongly oppose.
“It’s important to bring families up because communities are affected by the challenges we have in the statutes,” Romero said.
The bill is not drafted, but will look similar to last year’s bill.
Financially dependent adult designees
Newly appointed Rep. Brian Doughty, who is currently the only openly gay legislator, is taking up a campaign promise to provide benefits to financially dependent adult designees of state employees. Under this bill, if a state employee is not using his or her spousal insurance benefit, the option to select another financially dependent adult as the designee of those benefits will be made available. While this would benefit gay couples living together, it could be used by unmarried straight couples or other family members.
In order to qualify for the benefits, recipients must demonstrate financial interdependency, which is frequently done through a shared bank account, and they must have shared the same residency during the previous year.
“It’s time for a bill like this for state employees and it wouldn’t just be a free-for-all to put your roommate on the insurance. There would be regulations and it would be monitored,” Doughty said.
This bill is not yet drafted.
Liquor Law Reform
Because Democratically sponsored bills are often dead on arrival to the Utah Legislature, Romero and Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, lead a panel discussion on Jan. 10 for input from the public concerning Utah’s liquor laws.
A board of industry professionals, along with state legislators, were present to hear concerns from the public; more than 140 attendees were present to voice concerns about the spectrum of Utah’s unusual liquor laws. From alcoholic content of beer to the ratio of alcoholic beverage and food sales in restaurants, those attending the meeting spoke passionately about liquor law reform.
Despite paying a 95 percent tax on liquor and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on inventory, David Morris, owner of Piper Down Pub in Salt Lake City, said he still doesn’t receive any wholesale discount and is tired of being micro-managed.
“Tell the people on The Hill that I make a better drink than they do. Quit telling me how to do it,” Morris said.
Last year, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, sponsored a bill overhauling Utah’s liquor laws. The bill banned daily drink specials, reinstated the “Zion Curtain” and allowed for club licenses to be sold, among other changes.
Valentine has filed for an amendment to his bill that was passed and signed by the governor over protests from the Utah Hospitality Association, who is pursuing legal action against the state due to the bill. However, the wording and specifics of the amendment have not been released.
Doughty has pledged to fight for logical and reasonable liquor reform, including requiring that two of the five DABC board members be consumers of alcohol and stop the executive branch from appointing the organization’s chair.
While there are a myriad of bills drafted and proposed, there is still time for legislators to file new bills and the entire momentum of the legislature could be shifted overnight. However, the Senate is gearing up for one of the most conservative movements in recent history.
“The (Legislative Research and General Counsel) can’t reveal yet what bills have been filed, but they did say they have never seen the Senate so conservative. They said there are programs, organizations and departments they plan to tear down completely,” Doughty said.
With the promise of conservative posturing during an election year, Democrats are preparing for an uphill battle.
“The Republicans have a monopoly in the executive branch and completely control the legislature,” Jim Dabakis, the state Democratic Party chairman, said. “For too long groups have tried to work with the extremists in the legislature and they don’t get anywhere. We’re looking to 2012 and trying to get more Democrats in the legislature and get Peter Cooke in the executive.”
With issues such as family programs and education, the Republican Party is failing Utahns, and while this is a conservative state, it is not as extreme as the elected representatives.
“We need to get people voting and electing Democrats. That’s really the only way to stop the extremist agenda that the Republicans will be pushing this session,” Dabakis said.