Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, got choked up as he made one last pitch about a new state flag to his colleagues on the Senate floor Thursday.
"Let there be no question that this state reveres (its) history," he said, after a short pause to gather his thoughts and emotions. "We love our pioneer ancestry, we love and revere our Indigenous history. We love and revere everyone who is here today."
Moments later, he watched as the Utah Senate voted 19-9 to approve the final adjustments to his bill, SB31, which adopts the first radical changes to the state flag in over a century while designating the current flag as the state's "historical" flag. The final Senate vote occurred less than an hour after the Utah House of Representatives passed the bill in a narrow 40-35 vote following a passionate half-hour debate on the subject.
It now heads to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox's desk for a final signature, which is expected. It is slated to take effect on March 9, 2024, because that is the earliest the change can take effect, per state code.
Thursday's votes put an end to a process that was years in the making, including many debates, meetings and thousands of flag designs.
Following the floor session, McCay, still brimming with emotion, was quick to point out that he was a "latecomer" to the flag discussion. Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, and former Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, got the ball rolling first. He adds it also couldn't have happened without help from the Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement and members of the Utah State Flag Task Force and the dozens of flag designers who contributed to the winning design.
That's on top of all the public input over the past two years.
"I guess I'm just as happy for myself as I am for all of them for participating," he said. "While I get here, take and hold up the flag and help (get) the final votes, all of Utah was involved in this and all of Utah, in so many ways, contributed."
Mark Brooks, one of the flag designers, was at the Utah Capitol on Thursday to nervously watch the final votes take place. He admits that he didn't think the process would be as controversial as it ended up, nor that it would take nearly the entire legislative session to push across. The first committee hearing on the bill took place on Jan. 18, two days into the session.
He was equally excited that the bill cleared the Legislature just before Friday's deadline.
"The hours and hours that we put into it, this is it. ... Everyone's worked so hard and I'm glad it's finally paid off," he said. "The big hurdle is done."
The final bill
The substitute that the Legislature approved adopts a design approved by the Utah State Flag Task Force last year and amended by the Utah Senate back in January. It also designates the current state flag, originally designed in the 1910s, as the "historical state flag" rather than a ceremonial flag, as the original bill called it.
There are actually three designs of the historical flag included in the bill, though all were minor adjustments to the flag designed over a century ago. The design will also remain the state seal.
The historical flags can be displayed at state buildings and "may be displayed on state property for ceremonial purposes" in the future also, according to the bill. It will also be displayed at the Utah Capitol during future legislative sessions. It will fly beneath the new design in all cases where both are displayed.
In essence, the changes allow Utahns to choose which flag to fly, said Rep. House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who served as the bill's House sponsor.
"This does not remove the current flag," he said. "This actually makes the current flag, I believe, in a more revered position as calling it the historical flag."
One last fiery debate
Not all state lawmakers saw it that way.
Thursday's votes came after members of the Utah House of Representatives tensely debated changes to the state flag. Several representatives argued on the floor that adding a new flag would diminish the history of the current design.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said he doubts his pioneer ancestors would support the new flag design.
"I love our current flag," he said. "I've had people say, 'When I go to Disneyland, I want a T-shirt of our flag and our current flag doesn't go on T-shirts well.' Then, fine, adopt a state T-shirt and put this on it."
Rep. Scott Chew, R-Jensen, added that had a "hard time imagining something different" than the current state flag. However, his biggest deciding factor was the strong opposition brought up by his constituents.
But other representatives agreed with the arguments made by McCay and other proponents, arguing that the new flag design does a better job of representing what Utah is today to people outside of the state. Some, such as Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, explained they were initially against the idea but came around to it as they thought about it more.
They view it as a more uniting flag that people may actually fly the same way residents do in states like Colorado, Texas and Wyoming.
"I'm not saying this is the most important bill that we will vote on this legislative session but I will say that it is historic," said Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist, R-Draper. "I love our history, I have pioneer ancestors, I honor our current flag and I'm glad that this bill keeps the current flag but ... I would be proud to fly this (new) flag, and wear T-shirts and hats and whatever it is — things you see in other states where they really do embrace their flag."
The floor debate was about as contentious as the public comments from a House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee hearing on the bill Tuesday and a Senate committee meeting held on the second day of the legislative session.
Even the most ardent state history experts found themselves divided on the future of the state flag.
Ellen Jeppson, the president of the International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers, said Tuesday that she finds the dates "1847" and "1896" — on the current flag but dropped on the new design — to be important in remembering the difficult trek pioneers took to arrive in Utah and then all the work to become a state.
"We feel like the symbols on the flag are so significant to us. The sego lilies, the beehive, the eagle," she said, explaining why she opposed the new design.
Those in favor of the new design argue that 1847 and 1896 are still represented, just through symbols like the beehive and a five-pointed star. The design also reflects the state's natural history and scenery, which has never been the case before.
Ron Fox, the co-chair of Utah's commission to celebrate the U.S. sesquicentennial coming up in 2026, said Tuesday that he believes the new design follows the constant change that exists throughout time.
"This is a positive change," he said. "The Legislature went forward and created the flag commission and task force (and) thousands of people were involved."
Contributing: Katie McKellar