From The Pandemic To Protests To Elections, 2020 Was An Eventful Year In Utah Politics
2020 has been a year for the Utah history books in more ways than one. To recap the year in politics, KUER political reporters Emily Means and Sonja Hutson joined All Things Considered host Caroline Ballard.
Caroline Ballard: Let's start at the beginning. In January, state lawmakers repealed a tax reform law they'd been working on for almost a year. Emily, why did they roll that back?
Emily Means: Legislators had proposed the tax reform to help with a revenue imbalance by increasing sales tax and cutting the income tax. And this was a bill they had passed in a special session in December, but it had huge opposition from the public. There were businesses who opposed the sales tax added to services, while community advocates opposed the additional tax on food. So there was enough opposition that [people supported] putting the tax law to voters through a referendum.
Instead of waiting for the voters to decide what to do with it, state leaders decided to repeal it themselves in January. But in lieu of a full tax overhaul, Utah voters actually passed Amendment G this past election, which gives lawmakers the ability to use education money for programs that benefit children and people with disabilities. So it ended up being kind of a tax reform workaround anyway.
CB: Life as we knew it changed dramatically in March when the coronavirus arrived in Utah along with public health restrictions. Those restrictions were quickly politicized. Tell us about how that happened, Sonja.
Sonja Hutson: Gov. Gary Herbert, starting in about mid-March, did things like closed in-house dining, schools and non-essential businesses. Eventually, most businesses were reopened with restrictions. Masks were eventually required throughout the state and large gatherings have continued to be banned. There were, and continue to be, some Republicans that think these [policies] are too restrictive and people should be able to decide for themselves what's the right amount of risk to take. You also had people to the left, usually, who criticized these restrictions for not being restrictive enough. The Republican Legislature also wanted more say in these restrictions and passed some bills that gave them more opportunities to weigh in on them, but they stopped short of actually overriding any of the governor's executive orders. But we could see some more bills in this vein in the coming year.
CB: Following the police killing of George Floyd in May, Utahns joined people across the country in protesting police brutality and racial inequity. Emily, what was the political response here in Utah?
EM: For Utahns, it wasn't just the police killing of George Floyd. It was also the death of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal at the hands of Salt Lake City police officers that brought this issue closer to home. We saw protests against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter throughout the summer, but it wasn't just protests. There were also policy proposals that came out of those discussions on police reform. This summer, the Legislature passed a law to ban police officers from using chokeholds. In the upcoming general session, there are some bills that will increase police training and data collection around use of force. So this is still an issue that's on the minds of lawmakers and Utahns.
CB: 2020 was also a big election year with the presidential race, as well as several important ones here in the state. Voters turned out in record numbers in November. Sonja, which races were the most consequential?
SH: We had the first open seat for governor since 2004. There were four candidates on the Republican primary ballot. Spencer Cox and Jon Huntsman were front runners there. Spencer Cox ended up winning that, which cleared a pretty easy path for victory for him in November.
There was also the fourth congressional district race. We had the incumbent, Ben McAdams, who's a pretty moderate Democrat. He was elected two years ago by just 0.2%. He was challenged by Republican Burgess Owens, who is pretty far to the right. Owens ended up unseating McAdams and won by about 1%. So we now have a fully Republican congressional delegation again.
CB: I think we're all a little wary of making predictions for the next year, considering how this past one turned some of our expectations on their heads. But how are you both approaching your reporting as we start a new year?
EM: I think it's really important to focus on people when we report on politics — to think of how politics and any issue affects real people.
SH: I agree. And just to add on that, I think we're going to be taking a bigger look at how political systems work and how the day-to-day news impacts those systems and real people.