2014 Legislative Session Illustrates Utah’s Growing Diversity

The Utah State Capitol building overlooks the smoggy Salt Lake Valley December 17th, 2009. Copyright © 2014 Jeff McGrath. All photos are Copyright protected. Use of images is prohibited without written consent of the Copyright owner.
The Utah State Capitol building overlooks the smoggy Salt Lake Valley December 17th, 2009.
Copyright © 2014 Jeff McGrath. All photos are Copyright protected. Use of images is prohibited without written consent of the Copyright owner.

Throughout the years most Utah residents have heard the stereotypes – homogeneous, white-bread, vanilla, conservative, Mormon, a “dry state” and many other epithets that may not be quite so kind. Realistically, Utah has earned its reputation as a very conservative state. In the 1992 election, Utah was the only state that gave a larger percentage of the popular vote to Reform Candidate Ross Perot than the Democratic candidate and eventual President Bill Clinton, 27% to 24%. But perceptions are changing.

Our state also has, whether erroneously or not, earned a reputation as close-minded, intolerant, short sighted and sexist depending on one’s point of view. In short, Utah has not been known in the more progressive parlance as a diverse state or a diverse population. I would posit that such a perception is not reflective of the day to day realities in Utah. There are a number of arguments to be made that the state and its peoples are have been and are increasingly more diverse. The 2014 legislative session reflects that increasing diversity, both of representation of issues and agenda. If the issues being addressed by our lawmakers are any indication of the makeup of the citizens they represent, the average observer might want to rethink their general assumption about Utah and her people.

It could be argued that diversity has always been interwoven in the fabric of twentieth century Utah society. We perhaps have not been diverse in the broader sense or definition that many outside the state would employ, but who is to say that true diversity conforms to any specific political or social agenda? Utah’s population has originally come from many points across the globe. Our local universities enjoy a broad base of international students from every country imaginable. Native American, Polynesian and Hispanic populations, now exceeding 20% of total residents, grow and thrive and enrich the state with their native cultures.

Our past Governor, Jon Huntsman, was the most active executive at a state level with the country of China in history (a record that garnered him the appointment of Ambassador to China by President Obama). Even today, Chinese delegates visit the state on official business and goodwill trips almost weekly. The numberless missionaries who have returned from service overseas bring back a command of language and understanding and exposure to foreign culture unparalleled anywhere else in the country. With every passing day we see an ever increasing mix of peoples and ideas in our neighborhoods, schools and communities. While we may not garner recognition for one specific recognized minority or another, taken as a whole the state of Utah is a unique melting pot in its own peculiar right. And we are, in general, a people who both enjoy and live at peace with the diversities we experience.

This year’s legislative session, if viewed as a whole, reflects that increasing diversity as far as issues are concerned. While every issue has both proponents and antagonists from either the right or the left, and no party can claim exclusive ownership of any specific issue, the session offered plenty of legislation that is generally associated with a wide variety of political viewpoints.

On what is regarded as the more liberal side of politics we see such laws as HB286, which addresses issues of sexual abuse prevention. HB61 sets forth new regulations for clean air programs. HB119 accommodates an opiate overdose emergency treatment program.  SB185 calls for more law enforcement transparency. HB160 establishes the Utah Wilderness Act scoring a win for lovers of the environment. HB74 established tax credits for energy efficient vehicles.

Stars & Stripes along with the Utah state flag fly outside the Utah State Capitol building. Copyright © 2014 Jeff McGrath. All photos are Copyright protected. Use of images is prohibited without written consent of the Copyright owner.
Stars & Stripes along with the Utah state flag fly outside the Utah State Capitol building.
Copyright © 2014 Jeff McGrath. All photos are Copyright protected. Use of images is prohibited without written consent of the Copyright owner.

On the traditionally conservative menu we witnessed such legislation as SB394, which addresses campaign finance revisions. HB268 amends definitions of dangerous weapons and provides exemptions for archery equipment. SB36 contains voter information amendments and puts restrictions on the type of voter information that can be shared. SB44 sets parameters for Workers Compensation and employee misconduct primarily associated with substance abuse.

There are even several pieces of legislation that reflect the state’s increasing open door attitude for visitors, businesses and tourists. HB356 provides for new convention facility incentive provisions. SB62 makes sweeping amendments to Utah’s science, technology and research governing author to further incent companies to invest research dollars in the state. And as always, we addressed several pieces of legislation reflecting our high value on education.

Taken from a broad-brush viewpoint, we are walking the walk and not just talking the talk when it comes to diversity of issues that we find important. The issues that our legislature is addressing reflect that fact. Individuals from any political persuasion should find something to be happy about in the latest legislative session. Perhaps if we continue down the road of championing practical issues, laws and policies that simply work regardless of political leanings, we may hear some different adjectives used to describe us in the future. Practical, fiscally responsible, innovative and forward thinking come to mind. While many of our own American citizens might still harbor lingering prejudices against us, the signs are evident that attitudes are changing. Just ask someone from out of town, or better yet from out of the country, next time you see them in a downtown restaurant or business setting. You might be surprised at some of the answers you get. Word is getting out…

Utah is not such a bad place after all.


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