State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Bountiful, is planning several bills for this year’s general session, which starts Jan. 28, that will stress lawmakers’ willingness to change – one on legislative and gubernatorial ethics, another on motorcycle public safety.
“We’ll see if I’m beating my head against the wall; it makes no sense for me to do so” without the possibility of success, says Weiler, a former state Republican Party leader who was appointed to his Senate post last year and won his own four-year term in November.
If he ends up with a head injury, it’s not for lack of trying – for Weiler wants to revisit the controversial issue of requiring Utah motorcycle riders to wear protective helmets.
The last time this was attempted it ended in a lively public hearing jammed with leather-wearing, helmet-hating citizens.
“It is silly not to do this,” says Weiler.
The cost to the public is clear, the ability to change driving behavior proven, and the savings in money and injury overwhelming.
Still, Weiler knows a mandatory helmet bill will be a tough sell.
He starts next week when the 22-member Senate Republican caucus meets for the second time behind closed doors in a day-long event to discuss several controversial issues before the 45-day general session begins.
“If I don’t have 15 votes in the Republican caucus” for his helmet bill, he won’t introduce it, Weiler told UtahPolicy.
“I’m willing to compromise, compromise. I’m willing to make (not wearing a helmet) a secondary offense, like not wearing a seat belt is today.”
That would mean that motorcycle riders could ride helmetless, and they wouldn’t be stopped by police unless they were pulled over for another offense, like speeding.
Then a ticket or warning would be issued.
In 1986 Utah required all drivers and passengers (with some limits) in a car or truck to wear their seat belts.
Any number of deaths and serious injuries have been avoided, says Weiler.
Twenty other states require motorcycle riders and passengers to wear helmets.
“We know that such a law immediately increase helmet wearing from 46 percent to 99 percent.”
But any number of individual riders and motorcycling groups oppose mandatory helmet laws, often citing individual freedom and responsibility as the reason.
Part of the “outlaw” joy of riding a bike involves the freedom of the open road and the wind in your hair.
But that is just a stupid excuse, believes Weiler.
“We realize that for society’s sake we make a person surrounded by 5,000 pounds of steal and airbags to wear a seat belt (in a car).
“We realize (through helmet-wearing) all of the financial savings, in families who lose their bread-winner through death or permanent injury in brain trauma – Medicaid, free school lunch on and on.
“It makes no sense to continue” to allow motorcycle riders and passengers to not wear helmets.
“Maybe part of it is we are afraid of these folks” – the motorcycling public, which makes up only 10 percent of all drivers.
“We’ve cut out a special class of people and say they don’t have to obey common sense rules of the road.”
Weiler’s other sensitive bill would extend the current one-year prohibition on former governors and legislators from lobbying their in-office colleagues to two years.
Weiler said he vehemently opposed last year’s Utahns For Ethical Government citizen initiative petition (which, after a court fight, was denied access to the 2012 general election ballot.)
But, he said, he promised the UEG supporters, a number of them Davis County residents, that he would look at their petition and support those areas he believed were sensible.
One of those, he says, is extending the “no lobbying” ban on former state officeholders.
“If the U.S. Senate can have this ethical reform, it is good enough for the Utah Legislature,” said Weiler.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett “has been railing against the two-year ban (that applied to him). But I think it makes sense,” said Weiler.
Bennett, unseated in 2010 by state GOP delegates, announced in December that starting in January he would start lobbying Congress – a profession he was banned from for the last two years.
“You can make hundreds of thousands of dollars” as a successful lobbyist before the Utah Legislature, says Weiler. “Especially if you were in (GOP) leadership before you left.”
There are some in the GOP Senate caucus who believe there should be no so-called “cooling off period” after leaving office.
There are some, he says, who think the current one-year ban is sufficient.
“And there are some who believe it should be longer.”
Sensing a feeling among Utah GOP state delegates that legislators’ actions should be more transparent and open, Weiler introduced in the May 2012 state Republican Convention a resolution supporting a two-year lobbying ban.
But the convention was crowded with candidates, and in some races exploded into controversy.
“We never got to any of the resolutions (before adjournment). So my two-year lobbying resolution didn’t come up. I was disappointed. I believed with such (rank-and-file) delegate support I would have momentum” bringing the issue before the GOP-controlled Legislature.
But he will still push the matter before the state Senate, if he feels he can get some support from his GOP caucus.
“I realize that no one admits when they run for office that they plan to later become a lobbyist – they’re not saying “I’m going to learn all the inside goodies and after I leave the Legislature I’m going to cash in and make a bunch of money.”
“But some are doing just that,” said Weiler.
A two-year lobbying ban will mean not only that the ex-legislator can’t immediately trade on personal relationships, but also will mean the ex-lawmaker must make a different living until he can switch professions and become a full-time lobbyist – thus discouraging that move.
“I believe it is an ethics reform we can all get behind.”