Tom Clyde: Stupid season at the Utah Legislature
If you are feeling kind of logy and stupid, it’s because we are about halfway through the annual session of the Utah Legislature. There is stupid in the air. The theatrical value of it is pretty solid, even if the decision-making is dispiriting. They started off the session by undoing the will of the voters as expressed in referenda in the last election. The urgency of undoing the medical marijuana bill was so great they called a special session for that. They decided to put off “fixing” the anti-gerrymandering initiative until next year when the heat is off.
In their correction of misguided voters’ intentions, the legislature decided that medical marijuana should be sold by the county health departments rather than private dispensaries. The problem is that marijuana, medical edibles or smoked, is still an illegal drug under federal law. Under federal law, banks can be closed for handling illegal drug money. So the sellers are locked out of the normal banking system. They’ve figured out ways to work around it, but not easily and not without the risks involved in moving piles of cash around.
So under the Legislature’s fix, Summit County government will be a drug dealer under federal law and there’s no easy way to separate the criminal payments for the illegal drug sales from the payroll account that pays the snowplow drivers. The county needs to figure out a way to launder the drug money, or you need to pay your property taxes in cash next year. Genius. I suspect they were cynical enough at the Legislature to have done this deliberately as a way to give the appearance of honoring the voters’ desires, sort of, while making sure it can’t actually happen.
Voters also approved a sweeping increase in Medicaid eligibility. The Legislature decided that surely, the voters couldn’t have intended to provide medical care to all those people, and has substantially reduced the scope of coverage. They claim it’s because we can’t possibly afford it. And then the next day they cut the sales tax because the State has more money than it can figure out how to spend.
It apparently will remain legal to yak on your phone in the car. Texting is not OK. Dialing is a gray area. But chattering away with the phone in one hand and gas station burrito in the other is perfectly OK, as long as you hold the Diet Coke between your legs.
Summit County residents are already under the impression that red lights are advisory, and that German cars are exempt completely. But there is a bill in the legislature that would make it legal to run red lights if you have paused for a while, and there are no other cars coming through the cross street on the green. For some reason, there are two traffic lights in Kamas. Most of the time, there is no traffic, and I confess to feeling like an idiot sitting there waiting for the light to change when there isn’t another vehicle in sight in any direction. I have slipped through the red more than once. But making that move fully legal is just stupid. You should at least have to hang up the phone before running the red light.
Fifteen-year-olds may no longer be able to marry in Utah. They will have to wait until they have attained sufficient maturity and judgment to make such a life-changing decision. Sixteen ought to do it, unless marrying a first cousin, and then they have to be over 50.
The grocery store beer bill passed the Senate, but may run into trouble in the House. The big breweries have quit making 3.2 percent beer because only Utah and Minnesota require it. The choice was that all beer would be sold through the state liquor stores, which don’t have the space to meet the demand, or grocery stores have to be able to sell normal beer. Opponents fear that this will eventually lead to grocery stores selling wine, though nobody has proposed that, and who knows, maybe drive-through medicinal pot. I guess that is an existential problem, though grocery stores in Idaho sell wine and my cousins in Pocatello don’t seem any crazier than us.
Of course there is the ban on bag-bans, that would make it illegal for cities and counties to prohibit plastic bags at the grocery store. When you look at all the garbage our society produces, I’ve always thought the plastic bag ban was a token gesture at best. But if local communities want to ban plastic bags, they ought to be able to. There’s no state interest in perpetuating the use of plastic bags. But if environmentalists are in favor of it, the Utah legislature surely is against it.
Buckle up, there are still a couple of weeks to go.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.