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Ballot Initiatives, Blazes & Ben McAdams: The Top Utah Stories Of 2018

Year-end picture
Renee Bright

It was a year of big — big fires, big ballot initiatives and big political upsets — that collectively defined Utah in 2018 as the state continued its growth spurt. The Beehive State added another 50,000 people this year, owing both to the state’s healthy economy and low unemployment. But Utah also weathered more troublesome headlines, whether through the rushed creation of a controversial Inland Port in northwest Salt Lake City or the publication of sexual abuse allegations implicating leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Catholic Church.

KUER reporters picked out some of the top stories of this year and explain why they mattered.

Top Political Story: People Power & Ballot Initiatives (Prop 2, Prop 3, Prop 4)

Why it mattered: In a year dominated by celebrity-status candidates such as Texas’ Beto O’Rourke and Utah’s own Mitt Romney, it was a slate of citizen-led ballot initiatives in Utah that caused the biggest stir leading up to election day.

Exasperated by years of inaction by the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature, citizen groups overcame a jungle gym of obstacles to place three propositions on the ballot. That included the most widely debated, Proposition 2, to expand access to medical marijuana for ill patients. There was also one for full Medicaid expansion (Prop 3) and a redistricting measure (Prop 4) to create fairer political maps.

Political experts agree that these initiatives — particularly medical marijuana — brought out new and infrequent voters like never before, shattering voter turnout records for previous midterm cycles.

All three measures passed. And although the Legislature has already replaced the medical marijuana initiative with a more restrictive version, state lawmakers seem to have received the message that Utah voters are willing to flex their collective muscle to achieve policy goals.

Honorable Mention: Ben McAdams nabs Utah’s 4th Congressional District. The “Blue Wave” that helped Democrats recapture the House this fall also toppled Republican Rep. Mia Love’s re-election bid. McAdams will likely be casting some of the most consequential votes during his first term as congressman as the House prepares a slew of investigations into every facet of President Trump’s business and political empire.

Top Environmental Story: Fire, Fire Everywhere

Why it mattered: California’s devastating wildfires captured headlines for much of the fire season, but Utah had its own hazards to deal with. Wildfire scarred nearly 500,000 acres, with the Pole Creek and Dollar Ridge fires among the state’s top five largest in the past 15 years. But forest and range were not the only casualties in an extraordinary fire year: The flames destroyed 400 structures, including 100 residences during what turned out to be Utah’s driest year on record. The drought was exceptional in Sevier and Sanpete counties and in the Four Corners region in southeastern Utah. Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statewide drought emergency declaration in October that cleared the way for federal aid for ranchers, farmers and other businesses harmed by the lack of precipitation.


Honorable Mentions: A few other other environmental concerns stood out in 2018. One was the fast-tracked development of new management plansthat would allow mining on 2 million acres in southern Utah that President Donald Trump carved late last year from two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. And, inspired by Utah’s bid to entertain the world at the 2030 Olympic Games, state leaders began talking more about climate change and the state’s air-pollution episodes. The governor’s budget proposal for next year even includes $100 million for clean-air projects.

Top Religion Story:A #MeToo Moment For Latter-day Saints

In March, a leaked audio recording triggered what looked like a reckoning for some top leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A woman, McKenna Denson, accused a former president of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Joseph Bishop, of raping her while she was a young missionary in the 1980s. In the audio recording of a conversation betweenDenson and Bishop, he seemed to confirm her accusation.

The shocking details of Denson’s story gripped many Latter-day Saints, both the faithful and disillusioned. In particular, evidence that Bishop’s senior leaders knew about the accusation and permitted him to keep serving unsettled some members. Other stories of abuse and neglectbubbled up to the surface. And the heightened attention set the stage for a reexamination of why Latter-day Saint leaders meet with church members behind closed doors and what they discuss in those meetings. Church officialsmade a few policy tweaksthat hinted at the array of growing concerns, but, by and large, they have stood by past practices and, in a literal sense, have remained unapologetic.

Why it mattered:  At a local level, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is run entirely by “lay leadership.” The men at the head of the congregation — bishops — do so on top of all of their other familial and professional responsibilities. While Latter-day Saints are often proud of this distinction, it can also mean these men are under-trained and lack supervision. For a church run by its members, this year’s #MeToo moment shed some light on the dangers of being judge and jury when serious matters of abuse are on the line.

Honorable Mention: Just days into 2018, the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thomas S. Monson, died at age 90. His successor, the 93-year-old (at the time) Russell M. Nelson burst into his new role with enthusiasm, as if he’d been restrained during his time under the leadership of others. In the past year Nelson has introduced more adjustments to Latter-day Saint worship than had been seen in nearly all of Monson’s 10-year tenure. Among those changes: two-hour church, dropping the term “Mormon,” and many other minor adjustments that mean a lot to the practicing Latter-day Saint but don’t even register to outsiders. But in matters of church controversy, namely the plight of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and the growing concerns of abuse, Nelson has been strategically quiet.

some images of 2018
Credit Judy Fahys, Renee Bright, Lee Hale, Julia Ritchey / KUER
From top left: Wildfires scorch Utah; voters approve medical cannabis; McKenna Denson makes an unsettling accusation; Ben McAdams pulls an upset in Utah's 4th District.

Top Health Care Stories: Medical Marijuana & Medicaid Expansion

Why it mattered: Two major stories in health care played out almost simultaneously, again driven by citizen-powered ballot initiatives. A diverse coalition of patient advocates decided to ditch the state Legislature as groups sought to expand access to medical marijuana through referendum, following neighboring Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. Though parts of Proposition 2 were scaled back during a special session following the election, the framework for a medical cannabis program is now law. That means those with chronic and terminal illnesses will no longer be treated as criminals when seeking relief through cannabis-based treatment.

Likewise, Utah joined several other red states this yearin expanding Medicaid, providing health care to another 150,000 low-income Utahns. The Legislature had tried to do a more limited expansion earlier in the year, despite longtime opposition to the program, but added a work requirement that many critics found onerous. Voters, either unaware of the state’s program or unwilling to wait for the federal waiver to go through, approved a sales tax hike to fund a clean Medicaid expansion with no work requirements.

Both stories shattered long-held stereotypes of how “red state” voters think, particularly in Mormon-heavy Utah.  They showed that when it comes to health care decisions, Utahns want broad access to life-saving medicines and providers. As the cost of healthcare becomes less affordable for more Americans, look to see these types of policy debates play out in future election cycles and referendums.


Top Utahn: Maj. Brent Taylor Killed In Action

Why he mattered: The death of former North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor while serving in Afghanistan jolted Utah. It also provided a sobering reminder of the human toll of the nation’s long-running conflict in the war-torn country. Taylor, who was killed by an Afghan soldier he was helping to train, leaves behind a wife and seven children. But his impact can best be summed up by his final Facebook posting, expressing optimism about Afghanistan’s elections and encouraging Americans of all stripes to exercise their right to vote. It’s a sentiment that feels especially poignant in today’s hyper-partisan climate.

Honorable Mention: So long, Sen. Orrin Hatch, hello Sen. Mitt Romney. The country’s longest serving Republican senator spent his last year in office muscling through a number of GOP priorities, not least of which was seating yet another justice on the Supreme Court. The controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh cemented Hatch’s role as a pivotal player in shifting the nation’s highest court to the right and further inflaming Washington’s polarization. Few can dispute Hatch’s legacy as a prolific lawmaker, though his late embrace of President Trump made his swan song calling for bipartisanship and civility ring hollow.

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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