Cannabis, Beer & Taxes: 2019 Year In Review
From the inland port to ballot initiatives to beer, KUER’s reporters have been following 2019’s biggest stories. Political reporter Nicole Nixon and education reporter Rocio Hernandez joined Caroline Ballard to discuss the issues they’ve been following.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: Last year, the legislature rolled back some ballot initiatives. Nicole, can you walk us through what happened?
Nicole Nixon: Yes. So this really started last year with medical marijuana. Voters approved three ballot initiatives in the 2018 election. Medical Marijuana was one of those and less than a month after that, the legislature convened a special session, passed a new version of the medical marijuana bill that they thought was better — sort of a compromise bill — and advocates were really upset about that.
A few months later, in January of 2019, they did something similar with a Medicaid expansion initiative that voters had passed. The legislature shrunk coverage for that, made it more expensive to cover fewer people. They said it would save money in the long term. Again, rolling back what Utah voters had passed and really angering a lot of Utah voters.
Then later this year— not rolling back a ballot initiative — but there was this special session on a tax reform bill that they had spent the whole year working on. It was pretty unpopular. It included things like raising the food tax and imposing new taxes on services. In the weeks before that special session, a lot of Utahns came out asking them not to do a special session — asking them to wait until the 2020 session so that they can have more input from voters. But they did it anyway. They pass this bill, and immediately afterward, there was a referendum filed. So, that will be a big deal going into 2020.
On the flip side of all of these things, though, there was a legislative effort to ban conversion therapy earlier this year. It didn't work out. But advocates and Gov. Herbert are circumventing the legislature to get that done, which is something that's been a priority for Herbert this year.
CB: Last year, Lauren McCluskey, a student, was killed on the University of Utah campus. But that story has had repercussions all through 2019. Rocio, you've been covering this story.
Rocio Hernandez: Yeah, it's been a trying year ever since for the university and its police department. What the university has done since that 2018 murder was it implemented 30 safety recommendations. But even that hasn't been enough to regain the trust among the student body.
And this month, the university announced that Marlon Lynch from New York University would become its new chief safety officer. That's a new position at the U. Lynch will oversee the police department and all other kinds of safety aspects at the university.
But the other thing that remains right now is that the university currently doesn't have a police chief. The former police chief, Dale Brophy, retired in October. Lynch will be involved in the hiring for that new position. And so it could be this new time for the university to rebuild from the Lauren McCluskey situation, and forge a new path.
There's also, in the background, this $56 million lawsuit by the Lauren McCluskey family. The university got a lot of flack from students and the public after it responded to the lawsuit in a motion where it suggested that it didn't have a legal obligation to protect all of its students. So, it'll be interesting to see where the university takes things from here with this new chief safety officer position, the new police chief in the police department and the new direction that it'll all go.
CB: Nicole, another story we've seen play out over a long period of time with some grassroots movement, as well, is the inland port.
NN: Right, and again, this story started last year with the creation of the inland port. It really came to a head this summer when there was this violent protest at the Salt Lake Chamber offices. That was in protest of Derek Miller, who's president and CEO of the Chamber. He was also chair of the inland port board at the time. So protesters stormed that building. They caused some damage and there was vandalism. Police intervened and it got really ugly and violent, both in and outside of that building. Ten protesters ended up being charged with things like rioting and criminal trespass.
I think this shows that there are still so many people that oppose this project. They've been talking for more than a year now about how it could have negative impacts on the environment, the air quality in the Salt Lake Valley and residents’ health. It still will be playing out in years to come.
NN: Caroline, I'm curious. You have only been in Utah for a few months now. I'm wondering if there are any stories that have stuck out to you in the few months you've been here?
CB: Yeah, so this one actually broke pretty late in the year — in December. A whistleblower came forward to the IRS saying The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has a tax-exempt investment fund with about $100 billion in it, but wasn't using that money for charitable purposes, as is required by law.
The whistleblower also said part of that money is coming from member tithes. He was worried that the Church is encouraging people who are really struggling to give 10% of their salary, when that could be going to rent money or electricity bills or food that they really need.
This actually puts the Church's net worth in the same league as some of the biggest companies in the world. But it is unclear what the IRS is going to do with this complaint. So, I think this is a story that we will all be watching going into 2020.
CB: Nicole, anything else that's been on your mind this year?
NN: Just real quick — if it's booze, it's news in Utah. We all know that the limit on beer sold in grocery stores and convenience stores went up from 4 to 5%. That means more choices of products in stores, and it just seems like the legislature is loosening those liquor laws ever so slightly lately.