On the first day of a multiday special session Tuesday, the Utah House made a big step toward finalizing the state’s contentious redistricting process when it voted to approve the first map — the most high-profile congressional map.

It now goes to the full Senate for consideration, one vote away from heading to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk for his signature or veto.

Cox, a Republican, said during an online town hall live-streamed on Facebook Tuesday evening he’s not likely to veto the Legislature’s maps. He noted the congressional map passed the House on a veto-proof majority.

“I’m not a bomb thrower,” the governor said. “I believe in good governance. I’ve been told a veto for the sake of a veto is something that I should do. I just think that’s a mistake.”

Noting lawmakers have worked “very hard” on the maps, Cox said he understands the “frustration that people are feeling right now.” That frustration, he said, should be directed at “making sure we elect people that have the same interest that you do and are interested in maybe changing those maps the next time around.”

The House approved the congressional map despite multiple failed attempts by Democrats to change the map to prevent it from “splitting” or “cracking” many of their home communities, swaths in Salt Lake County that make up some of the state’s more urban, liberal areas.

The House voted 50-22 — a mostly party-line vote — to approve the congressional map. Some House Republicans, however, did join with Democrats to vote against it, including Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City; Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville; Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy; Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo; and Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan.

One by one, the Republican supermajority of the House shot down attempts to alter the map that won a stamp of approval from the GOP-controlled Legislative Redistricting Committee on Monday evening.

Several Democrats attempted to replace the map with alternative maps that had been proposed by the Independent Redistricting Committee but not accepted by the Legislative Redistricting Committee, which voted Monday to approve its own maps despite about 150 Utahns who packed the hearing at the state Capitol, based in the Democratic stronghold of Salt Lake City.

An overwhelming majority of attendees urged legislators to instead adopt the Independent Redistricting Commission’s maps, which met nationally accepted criteria for laying out data-based and politically unbiased voting districts.

Many Utahns in that Monday meeting, the only public hearing for the legislative map proposals that were unveiled late Friday night, called the committee’s maps blatant gerrymandering. The committee’s leadership argued the maps included a “good balance of urban-rural mix” and met legal and mathematical criteria.

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The legislative committee voted along party lines — Republicans outnumbering Democrats — to approve a congressional map and forward it to the full Legislature. The committee’s Democrats, however, voted alongside Republicans to approve the other three maps for the state House and Senate and the state school board districts.

The Senate also voted 23-6, Democrats in dissent, to approve the state school board map. It now goes to the House for consideration.

The Utah Legislature will be back in session to continue voting on more maps Wednesday morning.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, talks to House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, in the House chamber during a special legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Democrats’ attempts to change maps all falter

One of the Democrats who tried to push one of the independent commission’s maps to the House floor was House Minority Whip Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City.

She prefaced her arguments by asking the Legislative Redistricting Committee’s co-chairman, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, to point to the Utah law that requires political districts to have a “rural-urban mix,” a principle Utah GOP legislators have prioritized in their map drawing.

Utah has no such statutory rule, Ray acknowledged, but he said, “that’s a policy that we have adopted as a Legislature, which is within our role to do that.”

Despite that absence of a requirement, Dailey-Provost argued, “it has been deemed so important that we’ve sacrificed the continuity of very important, critical communities in our state.”

Dailey-Provost said her own home area of Salt Lake City — which includes a 100-square-mile area — “contains under the proposed map four congressional districts.”

“We know in practice it disenfranchises every Salt Lake City voter, and it doesn’t need to,” she said. “We pride ourselves in our Legislature for working hard on compromise, for looking at bills, for reaching across party lines ... for making sure that everybody is offered a voice. I’m distressed that the proposed map does not do that, and the substitute map does a much better job at giving every person in our state their very best chance to have their voice heard on the national level.”

Other House Democrats attempted to substitute the legislative committee’s congressional map with other versions recommended by the independent commission, but the debate was cut short after less than 20 minutes. Some Democrats missed their chance, including Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper.

“I’m mad,” Harrison told the Deseret News after the vote, saying she had hoped to propose instead adopting the only congressional map recommended by the independent commission that had been drawn by a member of the public, University of Utah student Stuart Hepworth. That map used the “urban-rural mix” strategy but did a much better job avoiding splitting communities, she said.

“My constituents care deeply about the independent redistricting process they supported and are really concerned about the voice of the people being sidelined,” Harrison said. “We need folks without a political agenda crafting maps in a public, transparent process, and that’s what we had with the independent redistricting commission. Ultimately, voters should be choosing elected officials, not incumbents drawing lines to protect their own power.”

Are Utah’s maps headed toward a challenge?

As Utah lawmakers plowed ahead with their preferred maps, Better Boundaries, the group behind the 2018 voter-approved ballot initiative that created the Independent Redistricting Commission, announced Tuesday it wasn’t going to just stand back and watch.

That could mean a legal challenge — or a whole new ballot initiative.

“Better Boundaries is exploring legal and legislative solutions,” the group said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “We’ve formed an accountability PAC to pursue electoral consequences and have pledged a seed contribution of $50,000. Additionally, we are preparing a future ballot initiative to repeal and replace the heavily gerrymandered district maps, should the legislature continue to dismiss the voice of the people of Utah when Proposition 4 passed in 2018.”

Better Boundaries said Monday it was “deeply disappointed” in the Legislative Redistricting Committee, saying it “disregarded the will of the people and chose to push forward their own set of gerrymandered maps.”

The committee’s maps “clearly have no consideration for the criteria and standards as passed by SB200 in 2020, specifically splitting towns and cities for partisan purposes and favoring incumbent politicians,” Better Boundaries said.

What GOP House leader say about redistricting

Answering questions from reporters in a media availability in his office shortly before Tuesday’s special session began, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said lawmakers are better positioned to make redistricting decisions than the seven-member Independent Redistricting Commission. 

Lawmakers are “104 people that understand each neighborhood in the state, each precinct, each city in a way that seven people can’t,” the speaker said.

Newly elected House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said the Legislature has a statutory and constitutional responsibility to draw the maps. 

“This narrative out there that we didn’t listen to Better Boundaries, to the independent commission, is just false,” Schultz said. 

Lawmakers did take some of the commission’s ideas and incorporate them into the maps, Schultz said.

“The chairs looked at their maps, … the committee members looked at their maps, and in drafting the maps they worked together with cities, counties, all of the elected officials as well as the independent commission,” he said.

Asked about the Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s critical comments about the Legislative Redistricting Committee’s map proposals “cracking” Salt Lake County into four congressional districts, Wilson said, “the challenge with that is the math.” 

“You know, it’s tricky. … You literally cannot create four congressional districts and not divide up counties. You can’t do it. And so it’s easy to say that you should keep Salt Lake County together. Well, what about Weber County? What about Washington County? There’s more than just one county in this state,” the speaker said.

Wilson said the legislative committee’s maps divide numerous counties because “the math requires you to do that.” 

Schultz added the U.S. Supreme Court “didn’t just say communities, it’s communities of interest. That’s what I believe our maps did, it did help keep communities of interest together.” 

When a reporter asked if the east side of Salt Lake City — an area that was split into two congressional districts in the legislative committee’s proposed map — isn’t a community of interest, Wilson said “communities of interest is one of the considerations, but it’s not the only consideration.” 

“You’ve got to balance all the different elements around redistricting, and it’s easy to pick one element and say you’ve got to focus on that when the truth is there’s more than one element,” he said.

Wilson, soon after former Congressman Rob Bishop abruptly resigned from the Independent Redistricting Commission, complaining the commission was unfairly weighted to favor urban over rural interest, suggested the Legislature would possibly reevaluate the independent commission and its process altogether. He said Bishop’s resignation “shines a bright light on the fact that this maybe isn’t working the way that it was envisioned to.”

Asked whether he’d like to see the Independent Redistricting Commission dismantled, Wilson said legislative leaders haven’t had those discussions yet.

“But there was a lot of money spent on that process. We need to look and see if that was the best use of taxpayer funds or if there is a way to change the process so it’s a better outcome,” he said. 

The Utah Legislature gave the independent commission about $1 million to do its work.

“But I do want to be clear,” the speaker added. “There was some frustration. (Bishop) expressed it. I shared his frustration about the rural interests of the state, I think, not being considered in a way that they needed to be through the Independent Redistricting Commission’s congressional maps.” 

Asked whether lawmakers really had to “crack” Salt Lake County into all four congressional districts, Wilson said they not only have to weigh “communities of interest, equal representation, as many borders as you can, so all the different elements factored in.”

“But you’ve also got to build enough support across the House and the Senate and the governor and majority and minority caucuses to get something passed,” Wilson said. “So it’s an iterative process.” 

People — including Dixie State alumni — rally against changing the name of the university outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Dixie State name change

Lawmakers on Tuesday also teed up several other weighty issues to be considered in the special session’s coming days, slated to last another full day Wednesday and possibly the rest of the week.

Legislators held a more than two-hour public hearing to consider legislation that will rename Dixie State University as Utah Tech University. The Education Interim Committee took no vote but took public comment on the bill, HB2001, before it’s slated to be considered by both the House and the Senate. It could be up for a vote in both chambers as soon as Wednesday.

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People line up in an overflow area in the Senate Building at the Capitol complex in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, to comment on President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate and a bill by Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, which would provide workplace mandate exemptions, during a Business and Labor Interim Committee hearing. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Biden COVID-19 employer vaccine mandate

The Business and Labor Interim Committee also held a public hearing but took no vote on a bill that would expand exemptions to President Joe Biden’s workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which requires large employers to require their employees to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

Biden’s rule was put on hold Saturday pending a review by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals at the request of five states, including Utah, and several private companies. But as the lawsuit plays out, Senate Majority Assistant Whip Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, wants more expansive religious, medical and personal exemptions.

An exemption for “natural immunity” for Utahns who have already had COVID-19 and recovered would fall under a medical or personal exemption, Cullimore said.

Cullimore’s bill drew a large crowd of Utahns upset over Biden’s employer vaccine mandate. Some supported Cullimore’s bill, but others demanded lawmakers add more “teeth” into the bill to push back harder against what they considered egregious federal overreach.

However, one lawmaker, Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, expressed concern that Cullimore’s bill would go too far and allow too broad of exemptions that could turn into a mandate against mandates. He also said he was “super concerned” that could invite the federal government to step in and Utah could lose state control over its Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The bill went before the full Senate later Tuesday, but it was held for further consideration.

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Utah House leadership talks to reporters at Capitol in Salt Lake City.
House Majority Assistant Whip Val Peterson, R-Orem, left, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, newly elected House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, and newly elected House Majority Whip Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, talk to members of the media in Wilson’s office before a special legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

New House Republican leadership

To kick off the day, Wilson told reporters who the House GOP caucus elected in a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning as the House’s new majority leadership.

To take the place of former House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, who resigned last month to spend more time with his family, GOP lawmakers elected Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, formerly the House majority whip, as the new House majority leader. House Republicans also elected Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, to take Schultz’s old job as House majority whip. Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, will keep his position as majority assistant whip.

Moss, who was previously vice chairman of the powerful Executive Appropriations Committee, leaves that post vacant. Wilson said now that the new House leadership team has been elected, they’ll meet to discuss how to fill that position.

Utah House Majority Leader Francis Gibson resigns from Legislature

Also, Rep. Judy Weeks-Rohner, R-West Valley City, and Rep. Stephen Whyte, R-Mapleton, were sworn into the House on Tuesday. Rohner fills the vacancy left by Rep. Craig Hall R-West Valley City, who resigned to become a judge, and Whyte replaces Gibson. 

Contributing: Ashley Imlay

Utah House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, shakes hands House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, shakes hands with newly elected House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, in the House chamber before a special legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News