Mostly quiet Legislative session concludes

2012-03-09T00:35:00Z 2012-03-13T06:53:49Z Mostly quiet Legislative session concludesBilly Hesterman - Daily Herald Daily Herald
March 09, 2012 12:35 am  • 

State lawmakers opted to play it safe during this election-year legislative session. Lawmakers for the most part were careful in not taking on controversial issues as they methodically -- some might even call it boring -- made their way through the session focusing mostly on the crafting the state's $13 billion budget and addressing needs of the state.

Legislative leaders aren't complaining about the calmness, though. House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, called the session efficient and praised House members for the work they accomplished during the 45-day session.

"I feel really good about this session. I think things have run very smoothly; the process has worked very very well," Lockhart said.

Lawmakers passed more than 300 bills this session covering a variety of topics including public lands, automobile safety inspections, evaluations of public school teachers and revisions to the state's firearms law.

They did their best to avoid the attention-grabbing issues of last year, such as open records and immigration reform. Lockhart credited the no-nonsense session to leadership's pre-session message to focus on the work of the people.

"The message I tried to convey ... was let's do the people's business in an orderly and respectful fashion. Let's bring forward issues that are important to the Legislature and their constituents and let's get the people's business done," Lockhart said.

Here's what the Legislature got done:

Let's send a message

Legislators continued their march against the federal government by passing multiple bills to about how not pleased they are with how Washington is handling the affairs of the country.

The centerpiece of the Legislature's displeasure included a package of bills aimed at forcing the federal government to give Utah control of federal lands inside the state.

More than 60 percent of Utah is owned by the federal government. Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said the lands are important in funding Utah's education system in years to come.

"We simply can't wait any longer," Ivory said.

Ivory's proposal calls on the federal government to sell federal lands within Utah by the end of 2014. His plan follows the agreement set forward in Utah's enabling act -- the state will get 5 percent of the proceeds from the sale while the federal government would get the remaining 95 percent. The state would use its 5 percent to create a trust fund for Utah's future educational needs.

The problem with these bills is that each one contains a note from legislative staff that they may be found unconstitutional and therefore cost the state money in court battles they may or may not win. Lockhart said she thinks the message bills are worth pursuing.

"A lot of sponsors don't see their bills as message bills," she said. "I think the kinds of things that we did that others may deem as messages, for instance the public lands issue, that to me is a fight and a discussion worth having with the federal government."

Lawmakers also approved Senate Bill 208, which creates a compact with other states asking the federal government to allow them to take control of Medicare and Medicaid within those states. The compact requires approval from Congress and then asks that the federal government issue money to the states in block grant form to fund Medicare and Medicaid. Lawmakers claim they can do more with less in these areas if the federal government would allow them to do so.

"We ought to be on the cutting edge and on the very beginning stages of this," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said.

Let's leave it alone

A year removed from the controversial comprehensive immigration package, many expected the Legislature to take on immigration again to improve or repeal the law created in 2011. State Republican delegates narrowly passed a resolution at the state convention calling on lawmakers to repeal and replace it. The Legislature, however, was uninterested. Immigration issues barely got noticed this session.

Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, drafted House Bill 300, which would have dramatically changed the 2011 law known as House Bill 116, but Herrod's bill never made it off the ground. The bill was held in the House Rules Committee along with Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's immigration-based bill -- House Bill 477 -- dealing with electronic verification.

Herrod attempted a procedural move to get the bill moving through the legislative process but his plan was thwarted by Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, who made a motion for the House to go into recess in an effort to stop Herrod's scheme.

Neither the House nor Senate debated any immigration bills on their floors, though some bills were killed in committee. But with the start date of HB 116 set for July 1, 2013, Lockhart expects that the immigration debate will be back next year.

"Absolutely," Lockhart said. "I think you will see some activity around immigration definitely in the next session."

Let's (not) talk about sex

Just when you thought the most conservative state in the union couldn't get any more conservative, Utah's lawmakers found a way to take it a step further in issues dealing with sex education and abortions.

Lawmakers approved a change to the state's abstinence-plus sex education program to eliminate any instruction or advocacy of contraceptives. The bill also allows districts to not teach sex education at all. Lawmakers argued that abstinence should be the only thing taught to students because it is the only sure way to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, who was the Senate sponsor of House Bill 363, said another factor driving the bill was an effort by some Republican lawmakers to remove Planned Parenthood material from state-endorsed websites.

Lawmakers also created the nation's longest waiting period for a woman to have an abortion; House Bill 461 extends the 24-hour waiting period to 72 hours from the time a woman initially sees an abortion provider. Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said the 72 hours might be critical to a woman who is not completely decided on having an abortion for her to change her mind, while those committed to having an abortion will stay committed.

"I think those that are really committed to having an abortion after 24 hours will still have one after 72," Waddoups said.

Let's keep it in the open 

Lawmakers again took on Utah's open records law known as the Government Records Access and Management Act. Legislators learned from the events that took place in 2011 with the now infamous GRAMA bill, H. 477, which was later repealed, and drafted a new bill to update GRAMA, but did so in an open process.

"We are working hard to have this be a consensus bill," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 177.

Bramble's bill keeps public access to text messages and emails of government officials. It also creates a state GRAMA ombudsman position. The ombudsman would serve as an intermediary between the public and the state.

Lawmakers also passed a couple of bills brought about largely because of governmental issues in Utah County. Senate Bill 180 created an ethics commission for local municipalities to turn to when an ethics complaint has been filed. It was written after a series of events showed a need for the commission. Provo city had two issues dealing with ethics in 2011 -- former councilman Steve Turley and an ethics investigation of Mayor John Curtis. The mayor's office hired a former judge to investigate Turley, while the council's attorney investigated Curtis. Residents in Cedar Hills also have been calling for an investigation of the city's mayor and manager. Residents requested that the Utah County Attorney's Office handle the investigation but the office declined to investigate, saying the allegations are not criminal.

This commission would give Cedar Hills residents a way to pursue their concerns.

"There is currently no independent forum to hear complaints directly from citizens," bill sponsor Bramble said. "This will fix that."

The Legislature OK'd House Bill 491, which opens up the process for selecting local elected officials in the case of a midterm vacancy. The bill was drafted after the Orem City Council chose a candidate to fill its mayoral vacancy last year behind closed doors.

This bill requires that all meetings and interviews held to fill a midterm vacancy are done in an open meeting. Dougall and Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, sponsored the legislation. Both explained that since the previous officer holder was elected in an open process by the citizens, the process for appointing someone to the position should be done in the open, too.

"You are replacing somebody that the people had a chance to vet in an open process," Valentine said. "We can't have a vetting process in a closed meeting."

Let's say goodbye

The session also marks the end of a few Utah County lawmakers' state Legislature careers. Herrod, Sandstrom, R-Orem, Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, and Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, will not be seeking re-election for their House seats come this November.

Herrod is running for U.S. Senate against Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Sandstrom is seeking the Republican nomination for Utah's 4th congressional seat, while Sumson is challenging Gov. Gary Herbert for the Republican nomination for governor. Morley was once expected to run for the newly created Utah County state Senate seat, but he has said he plans on retiring at the end of his term.

Dougall also announced after the session that he will not run again this year, ending a 10-year run in the House.

Legislative items of note

House Bill 298, Motor Vehicle Safety Inspection Amendments

The number of times you'll need a safety inspection done on your car has been reduced. Lawmakers approved House Bill 298, sponsored by Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland. Under the bill, cars would need to have safety inspections in years 4, 8 and 10 and every year thereafter in the life of the car. It also increases the yearly registration fee by 94 cents.

With that extra registration fee, the bill would put close to 20 new highway patrol officers on the road, the largest increase in officers in 30 years. A number of officers that are charged with overseeing the safety inspections also would be reassigned to the roads.

House Bill 272, Pilot Program for Autism Spectrum Disorders Services

The House created a pilot program, in House Bill 272, that seeks to help families with autistic children pay for behavioral treatment for children from 2 to 6 years of age. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ronda Rudd Menlove, R-Garland, sailed through the House but struggled in the Senate as lawmakers worried that the plan, which is only supposed to last for two years, will become permanent and expand the government.

"I'm very concerned about a pilot program," said Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem. "I've been trying to think of any pilot program that we have ended at the end of the pilot and I don't think we've ever ended one."

DABC

After three legislative audits in 2011 showed major mismanagement practices in the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the Legislature restructured the department to add more oversight and input from the alcoholic beverage distribution community. While the bills, House Bill 354 and Senate Bill 66, don't alter drinking laws, they do create an assurance for taxpayers that a state-run department is now being held more accountable.

State budget

For the first time in years the Legislature had an increase in revenue to work with; revenues are projected to increase by more than $360 million. A large portion of the money went into funding Medicaid and covering growth in Utah's public education system, but lawmakers were able to squeak out some extra dollars to hand out raises.

The Legislature approved a 1 percent increase in pay for the state's employees and covered the growing retirement costs. They also handed out a 1 percent pay increase to workers in higher education and added more than 1 percent to the equation that makes up teacher salaries. Lawmakers do not set teacher pay, but they added enough money to the pot so districts can give raises to teachers.

Legislators also found the $800,000 to fund the dual immersion programs. The program, which allows for elementary school students to learn in two languages, was set to lose funding from a federal grant but money was found in the budget to allow the program to expand into more schools.

The $13 billion budget does not raise any taxes, a priority of legislative Republicans, and does not contain any structural imbalances. Lawmakers chose to not build any new buildings in the upcoming year in an effort to reduce the state's debt load, but did send $2 million to UVU to start planning for a new classroom building that is expected to be completed in three years.

"I think we did some really good work in terms of prioritizing the needs that were out there and funding the most important things," Lockhart said.

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