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You Say You Want A Resolution?

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Austen Diamond for KUER

If bills are the Legislature’s cake, resolutions are the frosting.

These non-binding measures allow lawmakers to stake out positions on controversial issues, honor historical figures and events, and propose changes to the Utah Constitution, usually with less fiscal impact and political acrimony than a full-fledged bill.

For the last few years, resolutions have made up about 10 percent of the total pieces of legislation passed each year, with lawmakers averaging roughly 50 each session.

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Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring two resolutions this year, one honoring Utah jazz musician Joe McQueen and another that would strike the language of slavery and indentured servitude from the state Constitution. If approved, the latter resolution would eventually go before voters.

“For some legislators, I think they go the way of a resolution to educate the public — or their colleagues — before they actually start looking at making changes to a law to a certain policy,” said Hollins.

It’s a tool that can be especially useful as a member of the minority party in a body where Republican priorities reign. An example of this, Hollins said, is a House resolution she passed last year raising awareness around restorative justice and the school-to-prison pipeline, an issue that might otherwise go ignored.

“It got the conversation started and shows that we as a legislative body will support this effort,” said Hollins.

Types of Resolutions

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Not all resolutions attract broad consensus, however. Two years ago, the House and Senate passed resolutions on a party-line vote rebuking President Obama’s proclamation creating the Bears Ears National Monument, which President Trump later reversed.

Derek Monson, vice president of policy at the conservative-leaning Sutherland Institute, says one of the most effective uses of a resolution is to communicate the state’s position to the federal government or its members of Congress.

“They can be useful as an introduction to a tough topic that needs to be addressed because it takes the political pressure off, since it’s a non-binding thing,” he said.

At a Senate hearing during the first week of the session, Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, failed to persuade Republicans to pass a resolution condemning family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, a policy President Trump discontinued last year.

Davis argued it was important to send a message as a state to its members of Congress, but Republicans were leery of its partisan overtones.

“We’re going to send this letter, which will have no effect, because it’s a resolution, and I think it’s too little, too late,” said Sen. Gregg Buxton, R-Roy.

But Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, defended the resolution as sending the right message to Washington.

“They’re messages for sure, but they mean something to the people they impact,” she said.

A similar resolution, with a slightly different emphasis on humane treatment of refugees at the southern border, was approved on Feb. 7 unanimously by a committee and will be heard before the full House.

But are there too many resolutions? Monson of the Sutherland Institute thinks lawmakers are savvy enough to know when a bill is worth pursuing and when it is a lost cause, especially given the short time span.

“We could be spending that time passing laws that are binding, but for me, frankly, as a conservative, I think we pass enough laws as it is,” joked Monson.

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