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Dems worry about the fallout as Utah’s GOP supermajority tees up culture war bills

FILE — Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks with Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, on the House floor Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer
AP, file
FILE — Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks with Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, on the House floor Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

The coming years could be big for Utah sports fans. The Winter Olympics are all but guaranteed to return to the Beehive State in 2034, and Utah business and political leaders are heavily courting franchises from Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.

It’s enough to make even the most fair weather fan giddy with excitement.

But some state lawmakers worry right-wing social issues could put those efforts at risk. The Utah Legislature’s Republican supermajority is slated to take on transgender rights and diversity, equity and inclusion programs this year.

Many conservatives believe DEI and affirmative action programs do the opposite of their intended purposes, and unfairly discriminate and foster ideological conformity — particularly at colleges and universities.

In December, Gov. Spencer Cox said he would “absolutely sign” legislation ending the practice in university hiring.

“We'll definitely be alienating, whether we're talking about baseball, whether we're talking about hockey, or whether we're talking about the Olympics,” said House Minority Leader, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City. “If you look at who is on the teams and you look at their lived experiences, I wouldn't want to come to Utah if I wasn't born here and someone's telling me that DEI is reverse discrimination or it's giving people of color a leg up. I wouldn't want to come here if I had a trans daughter and someone was telling me that she was gonna have to show her papers in order to use the restroom.”

Romero’s concerns are based on precedent. After North Carolina passed a controversial transgender bathroom law in 2016, the National Basketball Association postponed its all-star game there for two years until the law was partially repealed. Two bills introduced in the Utah Legislature this year address transgender use of bathrooms.

And it’s not just social issues Romero is concerned about. The International Olympic Committee expects ambitious air quality goals to be met before the 2034 Games. Some Utahns say state lawmakers are not doing enough to address that issue in particular.

“I wouldn't want to come here if we're not taking the air seriously and looking at climate change and how it impacts it,” Romero said. “It's easy to blame social media, it's easy to blame the federal government and sue them, but I think we as a state need to take more accountability.”

Despite Democratic concerns, Republican lawmakers have not shied away from addressing hot-button social issues in the past. Overturning a Cox veto in 2022, lawmakers passed a bill barring transgender girls from participating in school sports. In 2023, a bill banned transgender minors from obtaining gender-affirming care — with the support of the governor.

Cox, however, is more concerned “about what the citizens of Utah think about Utah” than outside forces.

“There are Major League Baseball teams, NFL teams in Texas and I don't hear like, ‘Oh, you know, because of what they did with DEI now are these Texas teams all going to move,’” said Cox. “I believe we can have these conversations in a respectful way. We can have these debates in a respectful way.”

Coloring those debates this year are the looming 2024 elections. Cox, along with many Republicans in the Legislature, face primary challenges and could move to secure conservative support before party conventions and primaries this spring and summer.

“The incentives are aligned in ways that pull us apart,” Cox said. “I always get more attention when I say crazy things, when I'm loud and boisterous, and I know that's not great … I'm grateful that the vast majority of members of the Legislature care deeply about our state. They want to do the right things.”

Still, whether a message of collaboration will translate into bipartisan results weighs heavy on Romero’s and other Democrat’s minds.

“We tout we're the best state in a lot of these areas when it comes to the economy, but at the end of the day, how is the morale of all our citizens?” said Romero. “If we are doing things to make people feel like they don't belong, then we're not the great state we claim to be.”

Legislative committees are likely to take up diversity programs in the opening days of the 2024 General Session.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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