Utah Legislature will tackle high-profile issues
Beginning Monday and running through March 14, the Utah Legislature will be in session in the state Capitol and it will have its 208 hands full.
The members, all 79 returning lawmakers and 25 newly elected ones, must figure out how to make the $13 billion-plus budget balance and whether and how to significantly boost spending for jampacked public schools.
They'll grapple with Obamacare and its ramifications for Utahns; and they'll debate what changes are needed to keep public officials on the straight and narrow in light of the scandalous allegations that have engulfed the state's new attorney general.
Lawmakers will craft the state's policy response if any to the bloody rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and, in their spare time, gauge sentiment for pressing on with Utah's homemade version of immigration reform or, alternatively, pulling back to let the feds at long last deal with the issue.
Some 1,000 pieces of legislation are likely to be introduced, and anywhere from a third to half will pass. While it's impossible to forecast what may be the surprises and controversies of the session, here is a synopsis of the substantive policy debates expected to play out.
Budget • Republican leaders enter the 2013 session with considerable fear about the state's fiscal future if Congress remains in gridlock so much so that decisions on Utah's $13 billion-plus budget won't be made until the final hours of the session, and may be pushed off to a special session.
Budget analysts are forecasting a $420 million surplus for the coming year $300 million of it continuing and $120 million one-time.
But House and Senate leaders have agreed not to rush to spend the money until Congress addresses across-the-board spending cuts due to kick in automatically March 1.
"I hate it, because if we are actually budgeting and perfecting policy in a bubble, the bubble could break," said incoming Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.
If the gridlock is broken, there is a long list of high-priority programs that will be lining up for funds with public schools at the top of the list.
Gov. Gary Herbert has made education his top priority and has proposed increasing school spending by $298 million including $105 million just to cover the costs of new students.
Public education • Debate over sex education overshadowed many other discussions about schools during the last legislative session.
This session, however, will likely be free of sex education talk almost.
Coming into the 2013 Legislature, lawmakers are set to tackle a number of hot-button issues, including a proposal by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, to create a state-funded preschool program for at-risk kids; a resolution, SJR5, by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, to give the governor and Senate control over the employment of the state superintendent; and, yes, even a bill, SB39, touching on sex education, except this time for parents rather than kids, also sponsored by Reid.
Lawmakers will also address the constant issue of school funding in Utah, which has the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation.
Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Jim Bird, R-West Jordan, and Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, plan to run bills to try to boost school funding, HB271 and HB55, respectively. Others, such as Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, intend to push bills like SB110, which seeks ways to better spend the money Utah has.
Ethics • The scandal that has embroiled Utah Attorney General John Swallow has moved the issue of ethics reform to the front burner this session, with lawmakers and the governor calling for changes to rules guiding how officials conduct themselves.
Senators are proposing the creation of a statewide panel that would hear ethics complaints against employees in the office of the governor, attorney general, auditor and treasurer.
Such a panel currently exists for legislators, but not for other offices.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is proposing restrictions on outside consulting by state employees, with exceptions for things like teaching classes.
Gov. Gary Herbert has expressed support for both of those changes. He opposes a proposal, however, to cap campaign contributions.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, is preparing legislation that would cap contributions at $9,999 for statewide races.
And Sen.-elect Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, is working on an overhaul of the ethics code for state employees. And a bill sponsored by Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, aims to refine the process for ethics complaints against legislators.
Guns • The shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., may have gotten the federal government to consider gun restrictions, but, based on some of the bills the Utah Legislature will consider this session, it appears Republican lawmakers want to steer the state in the opposite direction.
Already, four bills have been launched including one that would seek to give county sheriffs the ability to arrest federal agents attempting to seize guns from Utahns. That measure was trumpeted on Capitol Hill this month at a Gun Appreciation Day rally attended by about 1,500 people.
And another bill being proposed would have Utah join a handful of states including neighboring Wyoming that fall under the constitutional carry category of gun rights.
That measure is from Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, and it would allow anyone over age 21 to carry a concealed weapon without having to obtain the state's concealed- weapons permit.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, has said he will push a bill, which failed last year, that would bar police from charging someone with disorderly conduct for simply carrying a weapon openly.
Health reform • Plan this year for a lot of legislative debate over Medicaid and whether to expand it to cover more of Utah's poor.
But don't expect any decisions, said Lt. Gov. Greg Bell. "It won't happen this session."
Republican leaders need more time to evaluate the risks and benefits, said Bell, noting an independent cost study ordered by the state Department of Health isn't due until sometime next week.
There's no delaying other health reform deadlines, however.
In the coming weeks, Gov. Gary Herbert must decide if Utah will run its own federal exchange, an insurance marketplace for small businesses and individuals.
Ensuing regulatory legislation could shape the shopping experience for consumers and determine the quality and affordability of plans sold on the exchange.
Immigration • As the federal government lurches forward on immigration reform, Utah will likely revisit one of its most controversial laws this legislative session.
When Gov. Gary Herbert signed four immigration bills into law in 2011, it was HB116, creating a state guest-worker program, that drew fire from conservatives who believed the state was overstepping its bounds. That law, however, wasn't scheduled to take effect until July 1, 2013. It has an estimated $6 million start-up cost, but legislative analysts have added a caveat that Utah would violate federal law if it attempted to establish the guest-worker program. Since it was signed into law, former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff had been negotiating with the federal government to not sue the state over it, but no such agreement has been reached.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo and one of the key architects of HB116, said recently there would be a need to consider delaying or pulling out the trigger date until the state sees what the federal government plans to do.
Unlike 2011, there isn't expected to be a heavy volume of immigration-related bills. The only other one that's been released is a resolution asking the Legislature to endorse the principles of The Utah Compact.