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Hate crimes bill fails again, but sponsor says he won't let issue die

For the fourth straight year the Utah Legislature failed to strengthen Utah's hate crimes law.

But as he has in years past, Sen. Pete Suazo holds out hope for next time.

"I'm not going to let the issue die," the Salt Lake Democrat said.

The House let it die Wednesday as SB37 languished in the House Rules Committee while lawmakers debated other bills before adjourning at midnight.

Suazo and House sponsoring Rep. Gerry Adair said the lengthy discussions were intended to prevent a motion to bring SB37 to the floor for a vote.

"We got outmaneuvered," Adair, R-Roy, said of the alleged filibuster. "Whatever it was, it was effective,"

House Speaker Marty Stephens saw the demise of Suazo's controversial bill differently, though.

"There was no filibuster," Stephens said. "I just think it was a bad piece of legislation."

Suazo doesn't see his bill as any different than the bill the House approved to protect farmers and ranchers from crimes against their livestock. HB322, also sponsored by Adair, enhances the penalties for criminal offenses committed against animal enterprises.

Similarly, Suazo's hate crimes bill would enhance penalties for committing crimes because of bias or prejudice against a group. SB37 supporters, including prosecutors who said the existing law was unenforceable, pointed to the passage of HB322 as evidence that some lawmakers wanted to avoid the hate crimes issue because it was perceived as giving special protection to homosexuals.

But Suazo has refused to make an exception for homosexuals, maintaining that the bill is intended to protect all citizens.

While the irony was not lost on Suazo, Stephens didn't have much to say about the similarities of SB37 and HB322.

"I don't know how to react to that," Stephens said. "I don't have a take on it. . . . We'd be happy to look at any legislation that makes sense and is \fair to everybody."

The House did pass a bill that was designed to set up a system to determine if police in Utah were racially profiling drivers. Despite support from the law enforcement community, HB199 was voted down in the Senate.

This was the second year such a measure, sponsored by Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake City, failed.

"I truly believe there are some (legislators) that truly don't want to believe these things are happening," Bourdeaux said of racial profiling and hate crimes.

Despite their setbacks, Suazo and Bourdeaux, the only Latino and black legislators on the hill, say they'll be back next year with both their bills.

Suazo even spoke of trying to get his bill heard during a special session this spring.

After the Legislature adjourned at midnight, Gov. Mike Leavitt said "there was a version" of the hate crimes bill he was ready to sign.

But the governor couldn't say if he'd consider the bill at a special session.

"I really haven't given any thought to that," Leavitt said. "We'll have to just wait and see."

If the bill doesn't get heard at a special session, Suazo said he'll keep bringing his hate crimes legislation back to the hill as he's done the last four years.

With the support this year from Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, police and minority groups, Suazo said he sees public sentiment slowly shifting to his side.

"I do believe that I won the battle in the court of the public," Suazo said.

But how far he can shift some conservative Republicans on the hill remains to be seen. Senate President Al Mansell was part of the GOP leadership who helped amend SB37 so it could be sent to the House. He said he felt there were some Republicans on the far right who would never support hate crimes legislation.

Three attempts to vote the bill out of the House Rules Committee failed this week. Another motion to lift SB37 from the committee Monday was voted down 39-36. Time ran out Wednesday before another motion could be made to lift SB37 from the committee for a last ditch vote on the House floor.

"It just couldn't get the support of the body," Stephens said.

Lobbyist Jim Gonzales, who is working for the Utah Coalition of La Raza, said for some conservatives supporting a bill like SB37 looks like a step to the political center.

"It's a step toward mainstream Utah," Gonzales said. "(Monday's) vote made it clear that this is a one- or two-vote issue. I think it's fair to say that there are 35 votes on either side that are pretty solid."

For now, though, Suazo will have to wait another year to find that out.