Democratic Utah lawmakers admit they're in the "super minority" on Capitol Hill, but that didn't stop a veteran senator on Saturday from labeling the Republican caucus' education agenda "crazy."
"A lot of our time on Capitol Hill is spent trying to defeat crazy proposals, and they are crazy,"said Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, talking to the Women's Democratic Club during their annual legislative-preview luncheon. "Republicans are trying to paint a picture of failing public schools. We don't believe that our schools are failing. They just need a little more help."
The partisan viewpoints on education couldn't be more at odds.
Morgan notes the GOP wants to limit collective bargaining and contract length for teachers. And she laments a new law allowing schools to be graded, as well as an upcoming effort to allow businesses to shift 100 percent of their tax obligation toward a fund for private schools. "It's just another go-around on the voucher issue that the public has said it doesn't want," said Morgan, a member of multiple education committees.
Instead, Morgan says Democrats will fight in the 2012 legislative session to increase base teacher salaries, provide more mentoring, specialists and tutors, reduce class sizes and promote a strong core curriculum, which includes the arts, music and physical education.
On a school-related issue, Rep. Larry Wiley, D-West Valley City, said he will continue his push to fund a study on the seismic safety of public schools. Wiley notes Utah has more than 1,000 public schools that house about half a million kids each day but for some reason, school safety doesn't seem to be seriously considered.
"There's a [more than] 50 percent chance that the building one of your children is in will likely collapse," Wiley said, pointing to a 2010 Seismic Safety Commission study that found 58 percent of public school buildings have probable cause to pancake.
Wiley, a building code official, also noted that a 7.0 earthquake is estimated to lead to a $17 billion loss. "It's something to think about." He pinned the intransigence on Republican lawmakers who are builders "looking out for self-interest."
Members of the Women's Democratic Club sounded savvy and perhaps a little bit cynical about their party's uphill agenda. Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Holladay, tried humor to lighten the mood. "Nobody in this United States, and I've been to all of them, acts like Utah," he joked. "It's staggering."
After spending decades in the energy industry and advocating renewables on the hill, Hemingway blasted the GOP's focus on clean coal.
"Give me a break," he said.
The renewable industry, which typically receives only tax credits, stands little chance against the goliath of gas and oil companies, he said.
The lawmaker expressed concerns about a proposed nuclear power plant along the Green River. "It doesn't make any sense," he said. "Once it's built and operating, there won't be that many jobs there, and you'll still have the water issue."
This session, Hemingway said he will run a bill that would allow the spouses of military members transferred to Utah to receive unemployment benefits until they can find a job.
Wiley also plans to push legislation addressing insurance for families with an autistic child. Utah is one of a handful of states nationwide that has no autism insurance laws on the books.