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King holiday tests Utahns' commitment to diversity

Holiday: Session's start date up to voters

Published: Monday, Jan. 21 2008 12:53 a.m. MST

Today marks the first day of the 2008 Utah Legislature and could be the last day that Utah lawmakers meet on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
It's a welcome potential change for many of Utah's minority leaders, who have long called for lawmakers to recess on the holiday.
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said the start date has given lawmakers "a great chance to honor Dr. King" with a ceremony at the Capitol.
However, last year, Valentine said he "wanted to honor the request of the minority community" when he was Senate sponsor of a resolution to amend the state's Constitution to change the start date. The measure passed with unanimous support, but because it is a constitutional change, it won't take effect unless voters approve it this November.
"It's a little bit bittersweet this year," Valentine said. "I hope voters do approve the measure."
King, known for his advocacy of peaceful change as he worked for social justice, was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. He was there to lead sanitation workers' protest for better wages.
Betty Sawyer, president of the Ogden Branch NAACP, says she's supporting the measure, with the hope that lawmakers will continue to observe the holiday.
"We still want to encourage our lawmakers to be involved on the holiday and beyond with service projects," Sawyer said. "The hope is the Legislature will continue to be involved, whether or not we start the session on the holiday."
If voters approve, the legislative session would remain a 45-day session, starting on the fourth Monday in January instead of the third. Lawmakers would also recess on Presidents Day and any future federal holidays.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake Branch NAACP, says it will come down to voter education.
"We still have some work to do to make sure people know it's on the ballot," Williams said. "We will begin an early campaign for the awareness for the entire state of Utah to know about the constitutional change."
Valentine says apart from the holiday, the change would be advantageous when it comes to the state budget because lawmakers would have more time and leeway to make changes if needed.
And Williams hopes that if lawmakers aren't in session on the holiday, they'll have more time to attend observances, such as the Salt Lake NAACP's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Luncheon.
"We're hoping that this change will make it easier to come and support us," said Williams.
A similar resolution failed in 2000, the same year lawmakers established the state's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by renaming Human Rights Day.
Frank Cordova, director of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, says it takes away from the purpose of the holiday for lawmakers to meet.
Although legislators supported the ballot measure, it's an election year, and Cordova doubts lawmakers will be on the forefront of gathering support.
"I think they're going to be worried about re-election," Cordova said. "The community has to take it in hand and do most of the lobbying and politicking and education on the matter."


E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com

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