Wrapup of Utah's Legislative Session

Friday, Mar. 17, 2017
By Jean Hill
Director, Diocese of Salt Lake City Peace and Justice Commission
The 2017 Utah legislative session ended with some positive developments, such as funding for homeless services and new resource centers, removing one barrier to work for formerly incarcerated individuals by removing questions about criminal background from job applications for public employment, and once again defeating assisted suicide. However, much work on important issues will be done during the coming interim sessions. 
GUNS: While legislation to allow permit-less concealed carry failed, legislators will study this and other gun legislation during the coming months. Catholics concerned about the growing culture of violence in Utah should stay in contact with their senators and representatives as advocates for sensible gun regulations and against ineffective responses to violence.
One possibly dangerous response was illustrated by legislators who claimed that permit-less carry is necessary to protect women from domestic violence. Utah’s rates of domestic and sexual violence have exceeded the national average for several decades, despite being very much a gun state. Accessible firearms in domestic violence situations have been shown time and time again in published studies to drastically increase the chances that a woman will be killed. Suggesting that the answer to domestic violence is more violence will do little to help women, and may get them killed.
In a 2000 pastoral statement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “called for all people to work for a culture of life and to do more to end violence in our homes and to help victims break out of patterns of abuse.” Regarding gun violence prevention, the bishops wrote, “We support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.” 
SALES TAX ON FOOD: Legislators abandoned the idea of raising the sales tax on food in the final days of the session, but they also promised to look at the issue during the interim. Fortunately, legislators recognized that they must also include a thorough review of the multiple tax exemptions and credits in state law. However, senators seemed enamored of the sales tax on food, despite economic analysis showing that raising the tax would not have much impact on the state general fund. Raising the tax on food would have an enormous effect on low-income individuals. 
As the USCCB noted in its pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, “Economic decisions have human consequences and moral content; they help or hurt people, strengthen or weaken family life, advance or diminish the quality of justice in our land.” As Catholics, we need to remind our state legislators of the moral implications of their actions on budget, tax, and related economic issues during the interim sessions.
LIVING WAGE: For the second year in a row, legislators voted down a bill raising the state minimum wage from its current $7.35/hour. However, legislators did agree it is time to study the impacts of Utah’s low minimum wage, especially in relation to increasing housing costs and a severe lack of affordable housing.  
At a minimum, a full-time worker needs to make at least $11 per hour to afford rent in any county in Utah. For those living on the Wasatch Front, that wage is closer to $17 per hour. Legislative study of this issue during the interim could impact our efforts to reduce homelessness as well as the basic welfare of thousands of teachers, law enforcement personnel, nurses and others who make minimum wage in Utah.
Please contact your state representative and senator and share your concerns about these and any other state legislative issues. To find who represents you, go to le.utah.gov/GIS/findDistrict.jsp and enter your address where indicated.
Jean Hill is the Diocese of Salt Lake City government liaison.
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