A tenured legislator concludes her final general session with the passage of big bills
Mar 30, 2020 01:08PM
By Zak Sonntag
Legislators in the House of Representatives work at their desks during floor time. (Zak Sonntag/ City Journals)
By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]
Utah’s famously frenetic legislative session ended last month, with over 510 bills gaining passage and many more debated. When it’s all said and done, you can almost feel the capitol building itself exhale, as if catching its breath. The general session lasts 45 days, which produces a sense of urgency and a distinct atmosphere. To succeed as a Utah lawmaker requires erudition and efficiency, long hours and a lot of caffeine, all of which imbue the state chambers with a feeling of purposeful frenzy. The vaulted interiors echo with constant discussion, and lawmakers hasten through the marbled corridors between committee rooms, the click of their block-heeled pumps and hard-heeled oxfords resounding off the tiled floors.
“A lot of days I start at 6 a.m. and I’m lucky to get home on the same calendar day,” said Rep. Patrice Arent, who represents the communities of Holladay and Millcreek. “Running, always hustling, just gobbling some food down during committee hearing and whenever we can. It crazy and so busy,” said Arent.
With regard to keeping busy, Arent is common enough, but in many respects she’s an atypical Utah legislator. A minority as both a woman and a Democrat, and a singularity as Jew.
“I’m the only Jewish member; that allows me to take the lead on things like my Resolution on Holocaust Education, for the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz,” said Arent.
Arent is the third most tenured representative in the State Legislature, and 2020 marks her final regular session, almost 20 years since her initial foray into public office. She’s known amongst colleagues for her tenacity and resilience. “Patrice is a fighter. She’s incredible. Just an awesome legislator,” said Rep Carol Spackman Moss, speaking with City Journals last November. And while Arent has been instrumental in more bills to count, here is a look at some of the legislation with which she’ll conclude her final general session.
Presidential primaries and Super Tuesday
You may have noticed an unusually large number of high-profile political figures visiting the state this year — including presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Michael Bloomberg, Amy Klobachar and Elizabeth Warren — a caliber of public figure normally wont to visit our state during election years because of our small delegate count. That changed this year with the implementation of a presidential primary bill sponsored by Arent, which created a new primary process run through state election officials and requires Utah’s presidential primary votes to be held on Super Tuesday, a multi-state voting day and decisive moment in presidential campaigns.
“In 2016, we had presidential primary caucuses ran by our parties, and it was a mess! You stood in line to get ballots, and the lines were out the door, then they ran out of ballots; people who were disabled couldn’t vote; there was no early voting. So I sponsored legislation to create a professionally done presidential primary run by our state election officials,” said Arent. “Last year we got the funding for it. That was important, because look at all the attention we got this year that we hadn’t before. Now that will be happening every four years,” Arent said.
By moving Utah’s primary vote up, Arent’s bill increases the relevance of Utah voices on national issues, and has compelled many campaigns to visit, speak and listen to a state they’d normally fly over en route to California.
Single-mark straight ticket voting
Arent has focused on other election aspects, too. One of the session’s most popular bills was Arent’s HB 70, which eliminates the practice of single-mark straight ticket voting in Utah elections, a ballot option that encourages citizens to vote entirely for either Democratic or Republican candidates. The bill comes partly in response to complaints raised by county clerks who’ve indicated the straight-ticket option creates confusion with voters, who often believe it prevents them from voting in non-partisan races.
“People will check that box and think they’re done, which is a problem, because they haven’t voted for the judges, or the constitutional amendments, or the propositions, or the school board races. Very few states still do this,” Arent said.
Voters can still vote categorically for one party, but advocates of Arent’s bill say the new measure will discourage thoughtless partisan alignment and promote a more deliberative consideration of candidates.
One of Arent’s big efforts this session was HB234, Gestational Agreement Amendments, which codified a new Supreme Court standard allowing two men to enter into a gestational surrogacy contract with a woman in order to become parents.
“Under current Utah law, you can have a surrogacy contract if you are a heterosexual couple, or two women, but not two men. Doesn’t make much sense,” said Arent.
“Some other leaders and I went in with a court opinion that argued it was unconstitutional. The courts ultimately agreed. But it doesn’t mean the law has changed, so it’s important that our code reflect what’s constitutional, because the average person doesn’t want to have to hire a lawyer or go to the Supreme Court to know what they can do. That’s what these amendments do — make the standard clear through law. Now two men can enter into a surrogacy contract.”
Newborn Safe Haven Law
Something citizens don’t usually grasp is the long-winded nature of a bills process, and sometimes public officials will work for years to get the bills to the shape they want. That was apparent this year when one of Arent’s longest fought causes made another big step.
“Around the year 2000, I was hearing about babies ending up in dumpsters and it was being reported more and more. So, in 2001, I filed the state’s first Newborn Safe Haven Law, which says you can anonymously and safely drop off your infant in a hospital [without fear of prosecution]. We were one of the first states to pass this law, and we’ve saved a lot of lives. But this year we updated that bill in significant ways. Originally, hospitals could only accept babies that were three days or younger. This year we changed that to 30 days,” said Arent. “Also, we finally got official funding for it. Until now it’s mostly just been the work of nonprofits and volunteers. Now we can effectively publicize it and do education and outreach to women so they’re aware this is an option. This funding was 20 years in the making,” said Arent.
The victory captures something at the heart of lawmaking. The yearly legislative session is short, but often laws are long in the making. They take patience and work that extends beyond the sixth-week window and even the calendar year. Arent has earned the respect of her colleagues and passed innumerable bipartisan bills over her career because she understands the importance of building coalitions and working with others. “I learned how to work with my colleagues because I listen to them. I learn from them, and I get expertise from everywhere I can,” Arent said. She explains that big issues require big coalitions, and the more perspective a lawmaker has the better their chances of improving policy.
“Many people in the legislature work up there and focus on a particular area. My work has been very broad. I’ve been all over the place. I work on everything from identity theft, to budget issues, to children’s health, to clean air, and the list goes on.
Arent admits lawmakers on the Hill are sometimes at ideological odds, which is why she’s developed an approach of pragmatism.
“When I look at a bill, the first thing I ask myself is: is it better than the current law? If a bill is up and it looks a little better than what we’ve got, I’m willing to hear it out.”
As Arent prepares to depart from a long career as a legislator, she does not anticipate renouncing her commitment to causes. “I’m going to continue to work on the issues like child safe haven and air quality. Its too important not to. I like to say I’m not retiring — I’m rewiring.”