The Utah Legislature this year had a decidedly reasonable tone. And that is welcome after years of tea party paranoia. Still, though, the session had many disappointments, reflecting a lack of willingness among legislators to properly fund education and too much eagerness to talk up states' rights at the expense of the needs of their own constituents.
Public-ed funding • While public education received the largest funding increase in years, money for schools remains inadequate. No new revenue sources for education were found. A 2 percent boost in the basic per-pupil allocation will do nothing to raise Utah above the cellar compared to other states, will not shrink class sizes or bring teacher salaries up to a competitive level. Most of the increase will go for Social Security and retirement costs and a meager 1 percent pay boost for teachers. An additional $50 million will pay the cost of educating an additional 13,500 students expected to arrive in the coming school year. It's primarily a status-quo budget. No money was earmarked to replace significant shortfalls in federal funds at Title I schools.
Early-childhood education • An innovative approach to paying for a preschool program for at-risk Utah children was defeated. Though conservative legislators like to tout their commitment to innovation in education, they turned thumbs down on this well-researched partnership with private business to create a program to help low-income, minority children start elementary school with some of the academic advantages that white, middle-class kids have had for many years. Money was found to give permanent funding to an existing optional all-day kindergarten program for a small number of at-risk kids but none for expanding it.
Bright education spots • An elementary school arts program will continue and all high school juniors and seniors will be able to take the ACT for free, a benefit for those who can't now afford the fee to take the college admissions test. Some money was found to encourage anti-bullying and suicide-prevention programs. A board will be established to focus funding and effort on expanding science, technology, engineering and math instruction to more children.
Higher education • After years of budget cuts coming just as enrollments at Utah colleges and universities skyrocketed, higher education received less overall than administrators had hoped, at $18 million, and the public-employee pay raise will not extend to employees at higher-ed institutions. One bright spot was an allocation of $10 million to increase enrollment at the University of Utah medical school to its former level and beyond. Utah Valley University and Weber State University will get new buildings, and all institutions will be able to grant more out-of-state tuition waivers.
State wrong on states' rights • Diverting attention from one's own failings by creating an external boogeyman who can be blamed for anything is not uncommon in politics. And members of the Utah Legislature have honed this practice to a fine art. Many bills that passed this session are designed to blame various policies of the federal government for problems that either don't exist (the threat of the feds seizing our guns) or that hide the lawmakers' own inability to properly fund public education (too much tax-exempt federal land). New laws and resolutions that purport to do such things as remove law-enforcement authority from employees of federal land-management agencies and claim state jurisdiction over grazing, forest management and endangered species matters, are blatantly unconstitutional.
Sticking out their tongues at Obamacare • In the end, all lawmakers did about the question of whether Utah should take advantage of the federal offer to pay for expanding Medicaid coverage to those households making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level an estimated 130,000 of us was to demand that Gov. Gary Herbert study the matter. As if he weren't already looking at the issue from all possible angles. Properly, a bill that would have forbidden Utah to expand Medicaid, passed by the House, was significantly changed in the Senate. The final bill simply insists that Herbert study the costs and benefits of expansion. He is also supposed to run some numbers on the absurd suggestion that doctors providing charity care would help lower-income families just as much. Instead of getting their backs up over this key aspect of the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers should be supporting Medicaid expansion as the best way now before us of expanding coverage while providing some small ability to control costs.
The Zion Curtain does not fall • Lawmakers were correct to change the liquor licensing rules so that chain eateries can get a master license for all locations, freeing up some of the all-too-limited supply of such permits for smaller operations. But the fact that members of the Senate shot down a House-passed bill that would have ended the requirement for drinks to be mixed and poured behind an opaque barrier shows that our leaders still have a fear of adult beverages that is bad for business and for the state's image.