State Democratic and Republican leadership came together Thursday to back a proposal to amend the Utah Constitution to delay the start of the Legislature each year until after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"This is one of the issues the community has asked for, for quite some time," said Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake Branch of the NAACP, couldn't think of a better way to kick off Black History Month in February "with a tremendous joy and pride."
"It is rewarding to have them come out ahead of time and say that we are all together — we need to support it," said Williams, who remembers the contentious struggle to establish a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Utah.
Because the start date of the session is set by the state Constitution as the third Monday in January, the resolution to change the start date would need the votes of two-thirds of both the House and Senate to place it on the 2008 general election ballot.
A similar resolution failed in 2000, the same year lawmakers established the state's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, by renaming Human Rights Day.
Like Williams, the Rev. France Davis of Calvary Baptist Church remembers the lengthy struggle to establish the state holiday.
"I'm excited," Davis said. "My position was, and still is, if they are going to meet on that day, they need to do some substantial business on behalf of the people to reflect the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
Valentine and other lawmakers have said meeting on Martin Luther King Jr. Day drew more attention to the holiday.
"This is a great tribute for Martin Luther King, to have the time we spend on the opening day of the session," Valentine said. "But the community has asked for the change. I think it's past time we actually listen to the request."
The change is not expected to affect the cost of the legislative session since the holiday taken during the session falls on a Monday, meaning those who travel to Salt Lake would simply delay their trip by a day.
The resolution would be amended so that lawmakers would also recess during Presidents Day and any future federal holidays that would fall during what will remain a 45-day session.
The new Senate resolution, SJR12, began has a House bill, HJR8, sponsored by House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake.
Becker said the Senate version is not a compromise.
"I think it makes great sense to recognize our federal holidays and our state holidays," Becker said. "Having a day off toward the end of the session may be healthy for all of us, having another day away and come back with a fresh perspective."
Williams agreed, saying the suggestion of taking off Presidents Day came from the NAACP.
"We said, 'If we can ask you not to meet on the Martin Luther King holiday — it's a federal holiday — will you consider not meeting on Presidents Day?"' she said.
Williams thanked lawmakers "for making this courageous move," saying it "will increase visibility" for the holiday in a state with few minority residents.
"It just shows to not only the state of Utah but to the country that folks here in Utah understand and are sensitized to these issues ..., that we're all in this together," she said.
Both Republican and Democratic legislative leaders said they believed SJR12 would have the necessary support.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is also supportive of the proposed change, said Mike Mower, the governor's spokesman.
Edward Lewis Jr., president of the NAACP Tri-State Conference that includes Idaho, Nevada and Utah, said the civil rights organization "will do all we can to inform the public, to educate the public and to educate the state of Utah that it is a good thing. It is the right thing. And we appreciate it."
However, if Thursday's House Republican Caucus meeting is any indication, there will be some opposition to the bill. During a voice vote, a number of lawmakers voted against the idea.
Rep. Bud Bowman, R-Cedar City, voted against the change and told fellow GOP House members: "You don't need to fix what ain't broke. Our forefathers were pretty smart fellows — they set the date" in January. "They were here before Martin Luther King was."
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said the current start date allows lawmakers to hear speeches and attend memorials for King, and schoolchildren and Boy Scout troops use the holiday to visit the Legislature.
"I think we are looking at this (change) completely backwards," Hutchings said. "This is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate a civil rights day. And Martin Luther King gets a tremendous amount of good public relations. I believe we should spotlight Martin Luther King day, as we do now, not run away from it"
However, Valentine said the request for the delay in starting the session has come from a variety of sources, including people in Utah who have said, "You know what, this community does respect the leaders who have fought for freedom."
Assuming the amendment passes the 2007 Legislature, and voters approve the change in November 2008, the first time the Legislature doesn't meet on Martin Luther King Jr. Day would be January 2009.
GOP House members said that this summer the interim Legislative Process Committee, made up of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats, will study whether other changes should be made in when and how long the Utah Legislature meets.
Several GOP House members said they would like more days off during the 45-day session to attend to their private jobs, their families and to hold town meetings with constituents.
Various options were discussed, including starting the session in early February, taking one or more weeks off in the middle of the current session, in part to allow late-February revenue estimates to be studied, and the final budget put together in a more thoughtful process.
"There is one thing (GOP) leaders will not accept," said House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy. "We will not meet in session more than 45 days. Put that baby to rest right now."
Another bill, HB11, to create a commemorative day marking Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery, has been approved by the House but has yet to be heard by the Senate. Sponsor Rep. Neil Hansen, D-Ogden, had hoped that bill would have passed on the first day of the session.
During his opening remarks Valentine said, "We never were a slave state. We never were a state that had segregation. But instead, we were a state that has honored freedom and the fighters of freedom."
That's not true. Slavery was at one time legal in Utah, historians say, and while Utah's schools were never segregated many other aspects of life in in the state were.
"For this purpose we recognize the need for recognition for people who fought for freedom," Valentine continued. "Hence, we wanted to start the day after Martin Luther King Day, a freedom fighter, and recognize two of our greatest presidents, who were also freedom fighters."
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