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Part 4: State Legislature

The Lifecycle of a Bill

Though cities and the public were weighing in, there was perhaps no group as influential as the state legislature in deciding the fate of Utah Lake. Because the state constitution designated the lakebed as sovereign lands under the public trust doctrine, the legislature had special jurisdiction and responsibility over major management decisions.

In the 2022 legislative session, two bills took center stage when it came to Utah Lake. House Bill 232 (HB 232) was sponsored by Representative Brady Brammer, a Utah County native, and its purpose was to build a new governing body for the oversight of Utah Lake: the Utah Lake Authority. The second major bill was HB240, sponsored by Representative Keven Stratton. Its purpose was to amend House Bill 272 (HB 272), which was passed back in 2018.

Representative Kevan Stratton (left), Representative Brady Brammer (right)

The passage of HB 272 in 2018 paved the way for major changes at Utah Lake. However, right from the beginning, some legal and environmental experts questioned if the bill was sound. Given the highly protected status of Utah Lake, many were asking whether transferring lakebed to a private group was constitutional. Andrew Follett, a former BYU student who had taken Ben’s Watershed Ecology class in 2018 asked this exact question in his legal paper, Bartering the Public Trust.

CUV arranged a meeting with Representative Stratton for Andrew to describe these concerns. Representative Stratton was very sympathetic to the arguments. In fact, he had been a long-time state’s-rights advocate, and he was surprised to hear someone so young so well informed about the state’s sovereignty. In the past, he had sometimes been at odds with environmental initiatives because of the possible loss of state control. In this case, Andrew and CUV built on common values with Representative Stratton to explore potential repeal or amendment of HB 272.

Representative Stratton said that repeal wasn’t going to get traction, but that amending HB 272 might be possible. Despite fierce opposition from the original sponsors of HB 272, Representative Stratton quickly opened a bill file for HB 240 at the end of January.

Stratton’s proposed amendments seemed quite minor, and some who opposed the island project thought they didn’t go far enough. The proposed amendments clarified the approval process and added a clause that required that the state check whether the transfer of lakebed would be “a fiscally sound and fair method of providing for the comprehensive restoration of Utah Lake” that was “constitutionally sound and legal.”

Despite misgivings from some members of the Utah Lake Conservation Coalition, most of the major partners, including CUV, started advocating for the legislation. However, a Salt-Lake-based environmental group, strongly and publicly opposed the amendments because they potentially gave more power to the legislature to decide how the lake was managed.

The video below discusses the complexity of writing, amending, and repealing legislation.

Legislation Video

On February 8th, 2022, opponents and proponents for LRS’ island project gathered at the Utah State Capitol. Representative Stratton’s amendments were going to be heard in the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee. After a long discussion with comments from Jeff Hartley, Ben, and CUV, the amendments passed by one vote.

Later that month, Craig Christensen anxiously watched the house discussion live. As the Executive Director of CUV, he felt that there was a lot on the line if HB 240 didn’t pass. According to LRS’ promotional materials, they were planning on moving forward with the initial phases of permitting and construction that year, if nothing changed. Given how controversial the amendments had been in committee, everyone was surprised that they passed with overwhelming support on the house floor: 68 yays and only 3 nays. The next day, the amendments passed the senate by a similarly large margin: 27 to 1. The only dissenting vote was a Democratic senator who had heard from the Salt-Lake-based environmental group opposing the amendments. CUV learned later that several lawmakers who didn’t initially support the amendments switched sides when they heard the “environmentalists” didn’t like them.

Though the amendments seemed minor, they would soon lead to major changes in the management of Utah Lake.

Reflection Questions

  1. Constitutionality is an important factor in public policy decisions. How did the state’s constitution play a role in this case? How can you apply this to other public health and environmental issues?
  2. Major policy changes are often made when an unlikely coalition of advocates come together. How did the diverse makeup of the Utah Lake Conservation Coalition help get HB 240 passed?