Lawmakers Preview the 2014 Legislative Session, Say Education is Top Issue

It may be two years away, but a group of lawmakers, business leaders, lobbyists and political insiders believe GOP Gov. Gary Herbert will run for re-election in 2016.


At the annual Zions Bank/Exoro pre-legislative conference held Wednesday morning, a crowd of around 200 political/business leaders – with Herbert looking on – used special voting pads to give their opinions on a number issues.

In addition, the conference sponsors paid for a new Dan Jones poll of 627 registered voters. And in some areas the two questions were compared – the answers of the conference bigshots and Utahns in general.

Some interesting results:

— 77 percent of conference attendees said Herbert would run for re-election in 2016.

Herbert laughed at the question, and asked if he should vote on his keypad. (It appeared he didn’t.) Herbert hasn’t yet said whether he will run again or not, although it appears a few Republicans are looking seriously at the race.

— 73 percent of those at the conference said the “Zion Curtain” should be taken down; 22 percent said keep it.

A bill to remove the “Zion Curtain” from restaurants that serve liquor, wine and beer passed the 2013 House, but failed in the Senate.

It will be reintroduced this session, which starts Monday.

Tuesday, leaders of the LDS Church, in a rare move, issued a statement before a legislative session saying that Utah liquor law, including keeping the Zion Curtain (where patrons are shielded from seeing liquor drinks being prepared by a 7-foot-2-inch barrier), should not be changed this year.

Later in the conference, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she has still not changed her mind from a year ago: “The Zion Curtain is weird.”

Lockhart, who has already announced that the 2014 session will be her last, said she has seen no data – “nothing” – that tells her shielding liquor drink preparation in a restaurant keeps minors from deciding to drink, either underage or when they become adults.

In light of no empirical evidence, Lockhart said she’s convinced that removing the Zion Curtain will help with the perception (fair or not) that Utah has strange alcohol laws and that drinkers really aren’t welcomed here.

The Zion Curtain could, thus, be removed from Utah liquor law with no bad effects, she said.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, told conference attendees that a “deal was made” several years ago when he ran his liquor reform bill, which allows, in essence, liquor by the drink in licensed bars.

That deal, bought into by leaders of the LDS Church, had four parts – only one being the Zion Curtain.

“It was a deal,” emphasized Valentine, who has run several liquor-modifying bills since.

Reading between the lines in this case is rather easy: Valentine is saying that he’s not ready to break a deal with church leaders over state-controlled alcohol sales in Utah – so the curtain must stay, effective or not.

And so, in light of the speaker’s support, and the House passage last year, of a bill removing the curtain, it is more understandable that LDS Church leaders issued a statement BEFORE the 2014 Legislature begins saying no liquor law changes should come.

— 85 percent of the conference attendees said Utah is on the right track. (There were a few Democrats in the room, maybe voting “wrong track” on that one.)

In the general poll, 63 percent of Utahns say the state is on the right track.

— Asked when the state gasoline tax would be increased, 49 percent of the bigwigs said in 2015, while 24 percent thought it would go up in the 2014 Legislature.

The last per-gallon gasoline tax hike was way back in 1997 – a non-election year for lawmakers, by the way.

While there is now growing pressure to raise the gas tax; rework the tax to include gasoline sales, instead of per-gallon; or make some other changes; Lockhart has already said the House won’t vote for a gas tax this election year.

All 75 House members are up for election in 2014; half of the 29-member Senate.

The political leaders were also asked if they support or oppose same-sex marriage in Utah.

— 49 percent of the leaders said they don’t support same-sex marriage, but 38 percent said they support it.

The conference organizers, as they do each year, conducted a public survey on important issues.

Some of those results:

— Like all legislative sessions, education is the most important issue – 85 percent of Uthans said it should be the major concern of lawmakers.

That is followed by jobs, air quality and health care.

While there is little chance it will happen, many Utahns said they would be willing to give up one of several current tax breaks – charitable contributions, the child care personal exemption or the mortgage exemption – if the increased money would go to public schools, the Jones poll found.

While Democratic lawmakers have several bills that would give more tax dollars to education, it’s unlikely the majority Republican will pass any of those, since they will be seen as tax increases.

In every Legislature, one or more lawmakers try to pass some kind of law requiring local school districts to teach this or that kind of class, or curriculum.

Jones found that less than 5 percent of Utahns want the Legislature setting any public school curriculum.

By far, more Utahns want local school boards and/or the elected State Board of Education to decide what kids should be taught in their schools.

Finally, the conference-goers and Utahns in general were quizzed about changing the current caucus/convention candidate nomination process.

A group calling itself Count My Vote is now collecting signatures aimed at changing Utah into a direct primary election state.

Among the political/business leaders, 76 percent said they support the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition. Only 28 percent opposed CMV and said the current caucus/convention is best kept.

— 82 percent of the leaders said CMV – back by a number of well-to-do, well-known Republicans and Democrats (including UtahPolicy publisher LaVarr Webb) – believe the petition supporters will, by the April 15 deadline, gather the 102,000 signatures needed.

Only 18 percent didn’t believe CMV will make the 2014 November ballot.

Jones’ poll, sponsored by Weber State’s Olene Walker school of politics, also asked a number of questions about CMV.

The poll’s results will be examined in more detail in later UtahPolicy stories.

But one finding jumped out: Only those who said they are “very conservative” wish to stay with the current caucus/convention system.

All other political group favor CMV, some by only a little, many by a lot.

Those who said they are “middle of the road” politically favor direct primaries over the caucus/convention system 70 percent to 15 percent.

State Sen. Pat Jones, R-Holladay, (who is Dan Jones’ wife) said there are several disturbing elements to Utah politics and office-winning:

— There isn’t enough real competition in many Utah races, especially for the Legislature.

— And there are too few women in office.

“We need more gender balance” in the Legislature, especially in the GOP ranks.

She said 77 percent of GOP state delegates are men, and older men at that.

“There’s nothing wrong with older men; I’m married to one,” said the senator.

But GOP delegates and legislators should look “less like your local high priest quorum,” she said – referring to a Mormon Church’s local congregation leadership group.

She said that is one reason incumbent officeholders don’t reflect in their voting their constituents’ wishes, but those of their delegates – who get first shot at kicking them out of office in re-election, and tend to be more extreme politically than regular voters.

“There are huge gender gaps” in how many women feel compared to men.

For example, in one of the Jones’ polls, 58 percent of men surveyed named education as their top state issue, while 71 percent of women listed education as their top issue.

Other issues, like gun rights, are skewed because there are so many more men than women in office, she said.