Money makes the world go 'round, and when you're short of cash, life can be, well, depressing. The need to slash the state budget dominated the Utah legislative session as shrinking state revenues forced a 9 percent haircut, a $1 billion trim. The barbering would have been more brutal if not for the federal stimulus package, which allowed the cuts to be far less deep.
While shaving the spending plan, the lawmakers also managed to launch market-based health insurance reform, drop the private liquor club fiction, thump illegal immigration, invite Utahns to carry loaded guns in their cars, refuse equal rights to gay and lesbian couples, and dip their toes in the icy waters of ethics reform.
Budget blues (thumb up) » Early on, lawmakers were preparing to chop the budget by 15 percent. But once $561 million arrived from Washington, legislators were able to limit the cuts to public education to around 5 percent and the rest of the budget to an average of 9 percent. Funding for teacher merit pay plans was slashed, and a new math curriculum was put on hold. A shorter school year is on the table. Unfortunately, adult education programs were cut by a third. Higher ed was hit harder overall, with a 9 percent cut. Medicaid and most social programs were spared where possible, though some optional therapies and mental health services were cut, to cite just two examples. Even with the stimulus funds, however, state agencies, schools districts and colleges will shed jobs, and programs will take a beating. That couldn't be helped. Legislators raised car registration fees by $20 and court and agriculture fees as well. We think there was room to hike fuel taxes, though most Utahns disagree. Lawmakers courageously bonded for $2.2 billion for roads and $115 million for buildings to create construction jobs and invest in the future. They also preserved $414 million in the rainy day fund and a $100 million education reserve. That caution was wise, because the economy is not yet showing signs of a turnaround. Overall, in a tough fix, lawmakers did a respectable job.
Health is on the way (thumb up) » On paper, Utah's health-care reforms look far-reaching: an Internet portal to compare products, mandate-light policies, alternatives to COBRA. Whether they actually will do much to contain costs, create competition or insure more people is anyone's guess. It's just a first step, but give Utah leaders credit for taking it.
Tempering temperance (thumb up) » A toast to our intrepid lawmakers, who tore down that 10-foot wall, held Big Brothers Valentine and Waddoups at bay, satisfied the Saints with DUI and underage-drinking safeguards, and jettisoned two of the goofiest liquor laws on Earth. No more private clubs requiring you to buy a membership, no more silly Zion Curtains separating patrons from mixologists at restaurant bars. Utah joins the Union! Cheers!
Gay wrongs (thumb down) » All the Common Ground Initiative supporters wanted was something approximating equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Utahns. Hospital visitation rights; the right of inheritance; a domestic partner registry; the right to sue in the event of a wrongful death; protections against discrimination in employment and housing. Is that too much to ask? Apparently so. The package of bills was defeated by the illogical homophobes who equate equality with an attack on traditional marriage.
Ethics reform? (thumb down) » No gift ban. No independent ethics commission. No caps on campaign contributions. No ban on voting despite conflicts of interest. And no way do the minor revisions to legislative ethics laws resemble the comprehensive reform that was promised. Lawmakers will only have to wait a year after leaving office to become a lobbyist. Gifts from lobbyists will be limited, but not banned. An online course will pass as ethics "training." Voters won't learn about campaign contributions made in the 30-day lead-up to an election until after their ballots are cast. Lawmakers took baby steps, but no strides.
Alienating immigrants (thumb down) » Lawmakers had a chance to fix a mistake, and repeal or delay Senate Bill 81. Instead, they made a bad thing worse. SB81 will still take effect in July, denying services to undocumented immigrants, requiring employers to somehow verify residency status, and breaking the vital bonds between police and the immigrant community by empowering state and local authorities to enforce federal immigration laws. Legislators also duplicated services by wasting $891,000 per year to create a strike force focusing on felonies committed by illegal immigrants, which will breed even more fear and distrust.
Driving while loaded (thumb down) » Soon it will be legal to drive a car with a concealed, loaded handgun on the seat next to you. And if you want to store a firearm in your car while it's parked on someone else's parking lot, no problem. On Capitol Hill, self-defense and the Second Amendment trump firearms safety and property rights. We think that's daft.