Last night, Governor Herbert delivered his “State of the State” speech for 2014. Key themes included economic development, clean air, education, population growth, and state sovereignty.
Towards the end, the Governor encouraged government officials to “renew our commitment to the principles of good governance, of fiscal prudence and of individual responsibility”—a call to action that we can readily stand behind. Unfortunately, mere commitment is not enough; Utah needs to see consistent application of these principles to effect any noticeable change in the size and scope of government, and more importantly, the freedom of each Utah resident.
In a similar article last year, we outlined a lengthy and foundational snapshot of the state of affairs in Utah. Of course, nothing has changed in the past 12 months, and therefore that snapshot remains an accurate depiction of how things stand in 2014. This year’s article will therefore highlight key developments of interest that have occurred over the last year.
As noted in our policy analysis regarding asset forfeiture, property rights in Utah suffered a debilitating blow by the deceptive passage of legislation that undermined protections that had been in place for over a decade. The ability of law enforcement officers to seize property from persons not convicted of any crime has now been made easier, and due process has been substantially restricted for those property owners.
Nationwide, asset forfeiture is routinely abused by law enforcement agencies to profit at the expense of the people from whom they seize (steal) property. This trend was the basis for a citizen initiative in 2000 that clamped down on “policing for profit” and enacted important restraints that in 2013 were deceptively undermined, and then unanimously approved by the legislature. It was then signed by Governor Herbert, felling property protections with the stroke of a pen.
In a response by the Attorney General’s office, this frontal assault was dismissed as, basically, “no big deal.” Keep in mind that past Attorneys General have been strong proponents of civil asset forfeiture and Mark Shurtleff, specifically, sought to undermine the 2000 citizen initiative as soon as it passed. We can therefore expect little unbiased analysis from this office on this subject.
A pair of judicial rulings, within one week of each other, drastically altered the legal landscape surrounding marriage in Utah. In the first, Judge Waddoups struck down a key portion of Utah’s bigamy statute that turned polygamists into felons, thereby enabling them to legally cohabit one with another. Waddoups declared that “no ‘fundamental right’ exists to have official State recognition of legitimation of individuals’ ‘purported’ polygamous marriages…”
In contrast, and only a week later, Judge Shelby struck down Amendment 3 in Utah that prohibited same-sex marriages. In his ruling, Shelby claimed that individuals have a “fundamental right” to government-sanctioned and -regulated marriage. In effect, he argues that we have the right to a government permission slip for our personal relationships.
The state of Utah is therefore in the awkward position of seeing judicial expansion of statutory and constitutional definitions that the majority of its citizens have long been content with. The willingness over time to allow the government to regulate marriage has centralized power that a tireless minority has sought to access and use to their benefit. To the extent that Utahns continue to support the notion of licensure for marriage, this arm wrestling match will continue—along with the attending legal battles and public animosity.
Utah taxpayers are compelled by law to be in the alcohol distribution and sales business. The state’s management and heavy regulation of alcohol within the state means that Utahns at large are the ultimate owners of an enterprise that provides these beverages for sale—this despite the fact that so many of those taxpayers are members of the LDS Church who abstain from alcohol and would want nothing to do with such a business, let alone be part owner of one.
Last year’s legislative session saw attempts to repeal two key provisions of the law. The Zion’s Curtain repealer that breezed through the House was killed in the Senate, and the same was true of a bill to eliminate the awkward “intent to dine” requirement imposed upon restaurants.
If policy makers are concerned about the dangers created by overconsumption of alcohol, driving under the influence, or underage drinking, then there are more reasonable avenues by which these issues can be addressed. What is most unfortunate is to see individuals pay lip service to the free market, only to violate it when the market involves a product or activity that they oppose. We would also like to see less DUIs and irresponsible drinking, but the burdens imposed upon businesses and responsible, consenting adults should be eliminated.
The federal government funds millions of dollars, and millions of dollars worth of supplies, to local law enforcement agencies. This nationwide trend has seen police departments acquiring used military supplies such as helicopters, armored personnel carriers, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, grenade launchers, automatic weapons, and other supplies. Clearfield recently announced, for example, that its intimidating “nuisance abatement vehicle” would surveil residences where drug activity was suspected, or where something as innocuous as a loud party was going on.
When challenged regarding this new gear, officers are quick to cite the need to defend themselves against well armed perpetrators. However, the data makes clear that the danger involved in law enforcement work has long been declining. As such, it would only seem reasonable that both the gear and the tactics used by police officers should follow, to some degree, a similar trend. Instead, police departments through Utah eagerly seek after more gear and more money to enforce the law. While this may help to protect police officers, it also endangers the lives of civilians—many of whom are innocent.
The Utah Data Center began operations a few months ago, serving as a warehouse to store the mass quantities of data being collected from people around the world—including Americans, whose information has been surveilled and stored without a warrant.
In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, many Americans are outraged at the surveillance state that has sprung up in their midst. Here in Utah, politicians eager for a mess of pottage willingly involved the state in this privacy-invading scheme. With numerous federal lawsuits, potential congressional reform, Snowden hiding out in Russia, and numerous states filing legislation to oppose the NSA, Utah’s leaders have offered nothing more than complicit silence on this issue.
As we’ve said before, Utah is a wonderful place to live, and relative to other states is faring well. But there remains significant room for improvement, and strong leadership is needed to push for substantive reforms that will better protect the individual liberty of each Utahn.