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A look at (more of) the hot-button issues Utah lawmakers debated this year

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A look at (more of) the hot-button issues Utah lawmakers debated this year

Mar 02, 2024 | 2:32 pm ET
By Katie McKellar Alixel Cabrera Kyle Dunphey McKenzie Romero
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A look at (more) of the hot-button issues Utah lawmakers debated this year
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Gov. Spencer Cox talks to journalists at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on the last night of the legislative session, Friday, March 1, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

From abortion to driving laws to money for filmmakers, Utah lawmakers tackled hot-button issues and engaged in emotional debates as they worked through the 45-day legislative session.

Speaking with reporters in the final hours of the session Friday night, Gov. Spencer Cox characterized this year’s session as “complicated,” marked by complex bills touching on “big issues that the state is facing.”

“I tell people to judge the session by what passes and what ends up in the final version of those bills,” Cox said. “And I feel with a couple hours left that I can say it has been a successful session.” 

Dominating the debate were bills on transgender bathroom access; diversity, equity and inclusion programs; strategy for water and energy management in the state; and how (and whether) to fund stadium projects in hopes of attracting professional sports teams to the state.

On top of those, here’s a look at more of the bills that flared up during the session.    

Utah lawmakers want to repeal abortion clinic ban hoping it will speed up trigger law case

Abortion: While lawmakers impatiently wait for the Utah Supreme Court to rule on the state’s trigger abortion ban, lawmakers passed HB560, a bill to repeal portions of last year’s legislation that bans abortion clinics. 

The sponsor, House Majority Whip Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, hopes it will “simplify” the case being heard by the Utah Supreme Court, which she believes will uphold the trigger ban. With an injunction on the trigger ban in place while the case moves through the court, abortions in Utah remain legal up to 18 weeks of pregnancy. 

Transparency: The Legislature approved several bills that chip away at government transparency. 

On the same day a judge sided with KSL TV journalists and ruled Attorney General Sean Reyes’ calendar should be released, lawmakers voted to pass SB240, a bill making clear that work calendars of public and elected officials are exempt from the state’s open record’s laws. Gov. Spencer Cox has signed the bill into law.

Another bill, HB202, regulates the name, image and likeness industry for college athletes, but also shields NIL contracts from open public records laws. 

Election issues: While some lawmakers filed bills to make changes to Utah’s election system — including some to put limits on mail-in voting — many didn’t gain traction. One bill would have taken election oversight away from the lieutenant governor, but its sponsor, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said that will be an issue for another year. 

Another bill would have ended Utah’s ranked choice pilot program early after some lawmakers said the practice caused confusion and complaints in recent city elections. The bill failed on a narrow, 12-15 vote in the Senate. 

Constitutional Sovereignty: One of the first bills signed by the governor was SB57, which allows lawmakers to reject any action from the federal government they view as unconstitutional, unless a court rules otherwise. 

Sponsored by Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, the Utah Constitutional Sovereignty Act would require a resolution from both the Senate president and speaker of the House, and support from a two-thirds majority in both bodies. The governor would also need to sign the resolution. If those requirements are met, Utah could choose not to comply with a federal directive. 

Sandall said it could be used to buck federal directives like certain air quality rules from the EPA.  

Clergy members’ ability to report child abuse ‘is a gift,’ rabbi says at House hearing

Clergy: The Legislature approved giving clergy members the option to report ongoing child abuse, a proposal that has been unpopular with lawmakers in the past, in HB432, Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Amendments. Similar efforts failed in previous years as churches balked at bills that would have required clergy to report abuse they learned about under the seal of confession. But as an option rather than a mandate, Utah churches didn’t oppose this year’s legislation

Flavored vapes: The state approved a ban on flavored vapes sales in an effort to prevent their use among minors. SB61 still allows tobacco and menthol flavors and restricts the level of nicotine to 4%. The Utah Vapor Business Association protested the action and could challenge the decision in court. 

Cannabis: A medical cannabis housekeeping bill generated controversy as it established a “harsh” punishment for cities that retaliate against employees for carrying a medical cannabis card — withholding funds. 

That provision later changed to a process that would require cities and the state to consult with legal counsel and obtain approval from a mayor, county executive or agency head before taking adverse action for the permitted use of medical cannabis. The Legislature approved the bill during the final hours of the session.

Minors driving with friends: An initiative to allow newly licensed minors to drive with one friend before the currently required six-month wait ends was meant to end a law that, according to its sponsor, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, many parents in rural communities allow their kids to break. The bill passed the House but didn’t make it through the Senate. 

Don’t bet on it: Bill to ask Utah voters to legalize lottery likely to fold

Lottery: A resolution that could have legalized the lottery in Utah by asking voters to weigh in on a constitutional amendment caused a stir early in the session, but it hit a dead end after Senate leaders made it clear they weren’t interested. It never received a public hearing.

Film incentives: HB78 extends the timeframe for the state’s rural motion picture tax incentive, which gives productions a rebate for money spent in rural counties.

Despite concerns from some conservative lawmakers that the tax incentive is a “handout to Hollywood” celebrities, the bill passed the House with a 55-18 vote and the Senate with a 19-8 vote. Supporters say incentivizing filmmaking in the state is good for the economy, especially in rural communities.

Artificial intelligence: SB149 is an attempt to wrangle the proliferation of artificial intelligence, and would extend the state’s deceptive practices law to include anything done with artificial intelligence. 

Under the law, if any person or business prompts an artificial intelligence bot or tool and it engages in a deceptive business practice, whoever initiated the process is liable. The same goes for criminal liability. 

The law would also create the Utah Office of Artificial Intelligence Policy, which would oversee a state artificial intelligence laboratory where companies could test business practices in an “experimental, small-scale way.”