Haunting on the Hill

Here lie the five pieces of legislation that, sadly, never made it out of the House and Senate alive. Some of them died quickly, while others suffered through slow deaths, full of fearmongering testimonies and painfully lengthy discussions. The good news is, their death is only temporary—these legislative ghosts will certainly come back to life in the future, revived, strengthened, and ready to succeed.

To start this journey of ghost exploration, travel back to 2014, a year where parents of homeschoolers united for a common goal: take back their hard-earned money to support their own kids’ education. See, parents of homeschoolers pay out of their pocket to educate their children—but the government still forces them to also pay into the public education system that they don’t use. House Bill 77 would have changed this and allowed homeschooling parents to claim a nonrefundable tax credit to receive back a portion of what the state had taken from them. This bill was killed by five votes on the House floor.

Now jump ahead to 2017 to explore the death of a bill that had great potential for Utahns. The first forgotten reform was Senate Bill 115, which aimed to minimize a terrible trap pointed at the parents of Utah’s children. The state’s compulsory education law criminalizes parents with a class B misdemeanor for truancy of their children—even though schools fail to excuse children for a number of legitimate reasons for absence. This bill would have helped balance the power between parents and schools by protecting parental rights. It’s time to do just that, and put this crime in the grave where it belongs.

Now we move to a spooky U.S. Supreme Court decision that all started with Utah police officers illegally detaining a man named Edward Strieff. The officers thought Strieff had been involved with a suspected drug house, and after stopping him, found an outstanding warrant which led to his arrest and a discovery of methamphetamine and paraphernalia. Strieff’s attorneys argued that the evidence was inadmissible in court because even though it was obtained after an arrest based on a warrant, the initial stop was unconstitutional. Utah’s Supreme Court agreed, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their opinion in a highly criticized 5-3 decision.   

Representative Greene attempted to address this unfair ruling with House Bill 392 which would have added search and seizure protections to Utah law, where the Supreme Court has undermined them. Alas, it slowly drifted away to join a silent yet chaotic sea of forgotten bills before ever reaching the House floor.

Now for our fourth ghost. It’s fair to say that an unbalanced budget, complete with wasteful spending and continual tax increases, is a political nightmare for true conservatives. They instead support a more prudent spending approach, with reasonable and necessary expenditures on essential government functions. This can be accomplished in Utah through zero-based budgeting, a process which requires legislators to start their yearly spending from zero rather than banking on last year’s budget plus an increase. The most important programs would be identified and funded first, and other projects and investments would be placed based on necessity.

Representative Fawson’s HJR 11 would have encouraged this spending process with zero based budgeting by requiring legislative subcommittees to review 20% of the budget via zero-based budgeting every year, ensuring a full budgetary review every five years. This 2018 bill passed unanimously in the House, but was left behind in the Senate. But budgeting won’t be going away in years to come—and neither will this idea.

The fifth and final haunting tribute will go to a bill that also recently died in 2018: HB 332. Representative Roberts introduced this legislation in hopes of creating a more transparent and just process for juries, but his colleagues barely voted it down on the House floor.

When a criminal case reaches trial, juries have the power to use their discretion to determine whether someone should be convicted of a crime; they can determine a person not guilty, even if they are technically guilty, if a conviction would be an injustice—say, in the case of an unjust law that unfairly criminalizes harmless activity. But unlike prosecutors and police, jurors are not made aware of their power. They are also left in the dark about what a potential sentence would be for the defendant they are judging. Thus, they are forced to make a pertinent decision about someone’s life, based on a law that may not be fairly applied to the circumstance, with no knowledge of the consequences—a scary reality of our current system. HB 332 would have allowed defense attorneys to make their case to a judge that the jury should be informed of their discretionary power.

These bills may have died, but they’ll come back to life—it’s only a matter of time. Just as ghosts randomly appear to their victims, these reforms continue to haunt the hill and will soon arrive on the desks of Utah legislators.