After Pride bus controversy, state agencies told to focus on their ‘true missions’
House majority leader says some Republicans are discussing ‘three or four different things’ in response to state entities who engage in controversial activities
Some legislative leaders are putting state entities on notice that they need to avoid straying from their “true missions” after the Utah Transit Authority was pressured to pull a bus with a pride wrap from the annual Utah Pride Parade in Salt Lake City.
“I would say that if we have state agencies that continue to go into the areas that are controversial, then all things would be on the table,” House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, told the Deseret News.
Schultz said there are “three or four different things being talked about” by some House Republicans to deal with not just UTA, but other state entities including universities if they have engaged in what might be seen as controversial activities.
“My hope is that UTA solves this on their own and it doesn’t have to become as big of an issue for the Legislature,” he said, declining to detail potential legislation that could be considered by the 2024 Legislature, where Republicans hold a supermajority.
UTA pulled the pride-wrapped bus from last Sunday’s parade amid criticism on social media, replacing it with an electric bus. UTA said in a statement Tuesday It was “a challenging situation that presented competing community interests.”
The wrap that featured messages like “RIDE WITH PRIDE!” was donated by two advertising companies, R&R Partners and Lamar Advertising, ahead of last year’s Pride celebration and was in the 2022 parade, UTA spokesman Carl Arky said.
“The bus is not currently in service,” Arky said. He said the bus had been used on a daily basis along multiple routes for the past year, but was pulled June 2 “upon the Legislature’s request.”
Schultz said, “We want our government entities to focus on what their true missions are.” The majority leader said he is waiting to see what further action UTA takes.
“I just don’t ever want to go down this pathway again. I just want them focused on moving people. And that’s moving people to and from the Pride parade” along with “every other event,” he said. “I think that’s truly what the majority of Utahns want to see.”
The controversy was apparently sparked by a UTA tweet May 31 that said the agency is “grateful for our LGBTQ+ riders and employees and look forward to celebrating Pride with you all month long,” including a picture of the bus.
‘A whole bunch of drama’
Schultz included a copy of UTA’s tweet in a text exchange that day with UTA Trustee Beth Holbrook, telling her, “This is causing me a whole bunch of drama right now inside my caucus. Is it really necessary? Can you reevaluate this decision?”
We are grateful for our LGBTQ+ riders and employees and look forward to celebrating Pride with you all month long. Keep an eye out for our pride-wrapped bus on our system, and check out our blog for other ways UTA can be your ride to pride at https://t.co/vLIA6QkpmF. pic.twitter.com/FtSEBkmzOQ— Utah Transit Authority - UTA (@RideUTA) May 31, 2023
According to the texts provided by UTA in response to a records request, Schultz said, “Honestly this is the last thing I want to deal with right now. It seriously would be best if you made the change on your own.”
Holbrook said she was having the agency’s legal team look at the issue, saying, “We have to be careful of 1st amendment issues. I will know more tomorrow. Last thing I want to do is inadvertently cause controversy.”
That triggered a stern response from Schultz: “Beth, you are a state owned entity. That bus is paid for using taxpayer dollars. This is not a first amendment issue. Whoever made the decision to move forward with this bus absolutely knew it would be controversial.”
The majority leader included a statement he said came from House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. “To quote the Speaker, ‘we live in Utah, we shouldn’t have to deal with this stuff’ and that there are “a group of members wanting you to make a formal public apology.”
He said he wanted “the problem solved ASAP so we don’t so we don’t have to go down this road.”
Three other GOP representatives texted UTA officials a day later to raise concerns about the agency’s tweet, Reps. Kay Christofferson of Lehi, chairman of the House Transportation Committee; Candice Pierucci of Herriman; and Colin Jack of St. George.
Christofferson told Holbrook he was “disappointed” to see a wrap “supporting a controversial social position that is very divisive. Why spend the funds and political capital on this effort? what other social issues have you not supported, but now are supporting this?”
Pierucci, a member of the Transportation Interim Committee, said in a text to UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen “this is not an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars” and that she had “reached out to leadership about this yesterday,” a reference to House leaders.
Jack said in a text to UTA Government Relations Director Shule Bishop that he, too, was disappointed to see the bus wrap. “I think public funds should never be used to promote private agendas, especially those that contradict our state ideals.”
Both Schultz and Christofferson were part of Jack’s text thread.
Christofferson said in a statement Thursday to the Deseret News, “I voiced my concerns to UTA and encouraged them to responsibly utilize and maximize taxpayers dollars,” while Pierucci said she was “questioning whether this was the best use of taxpayer dollars.”
Jack did not respond to requests for comment.
The House speaker was traveling and “out of service for the remainder of the week,” according to House spokeswoman Alexa Roberts, but Wilson said in a statement he’s “hopeful moving forward UTA will stick to its core mission of moving Utahns.”
Inclusion and government
Brigham Young University political science professor Chris Karpowitz warned “the tone and the content of at least some of these text messages runs a risk of further dividing Utahns,” and making it more difficult for lawmakers to work with the LGBTQ+ community and others.
“I don’t want to weigh in on the specifics of whether a wrap paid for by another group was acceptable or not,” Karpowitz said. But he stressed government does have “a role to signal that all Utahns are welcome at the table as we work out our differences.”
UTA trustees were not available for comment about what action the agency may take.
“We want to make it clear that it was never our intention to offend or disappoint any member of the communities we serve,” the agency said in the statement issued Tuesday that said UTA’s goal is “a transit environment that is safe, accessible, and welcoming to all.”