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Pedestrian safety bill could impact panhandlers and firefighters’ charity work

SALT LAKE CITY -- A new bill in the Utah State Legislature would ban you from giving money to a panhandler on a freeway offramp, but firefighters worried it could also impact their charity work.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is sponsoring House Bill 161, which would ban the exchange of money or property within certain roadways. The bill appears to target the increasing frequency of panhandling on freeway offramps. In an interview with FOX 13, Rep. Eliason insisted he is not targeting panhandlers -- but protecting pedestrians.

"They can stand there, but if somebody wants to transfer money or property from a vehicle to a pedestrian, they need to be safely parked," he said.

Rep. Eliason said he's seen entire families standing at offramps, and has gotten complaints from constituents worried about "near misses," where people are nearly hit by cars.

"This is in response to a safety issue. Now in fairness, firefighters sometimes will pass the boot and they're wandering around in traffic. Well, that could prohibit that also," he said of his bill. "We just don't think pedestrians running around high speed traffic lanes is a good idea for public safety."

Firefighters do worry Rep. Eliason's bill could impact their "Fill the Boot" charity drive for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

"Panhandling is an issue. I think everyone in the valley and maybe up in Ogden, we see it. It does need mitigating," said Jack Tidrow, the president of the Professional Firefighters of Utah union. "Unfortunately, we're one of the consequences in our 'Fill the Boot' efforts. Hopefully, there's a way around it."

Tidrow said it was his hope that firefighters could still raise money on smaller streets, perhaps with a city-sponsored permit.

Panhandling is constitutionally protected free speech. Courts have held that cities cannot ban it on public sidewalks and roadways. However, advocates for the homeless have repeatedly advised against giving to panhandlers and instead donating to reputable charities.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah said that as Rep. Eliason's bill is written now, it does not have a problem with it -- so long as it does not infringe on free speech rights.

"We think this is focused very narrowly on public safety. It says nothing about free speech," Rep. Eliason said.

The bill is scheduled to be heard in a legislative committee on Tuesday afternoon.