The states' rights session
In a session otherwise devoid of fireworks, conservative Utah legislators were content to launch bottle rockets at a federal government they believe has overstepped its bounds.
As the Legislature coasted to a finish Thursday just before 11 p.m., lawmakers had approved numerous bills declaring Utah's sovereign rights, ranging from exempting Utah-made guns from federal firearms laws to using eminent domain to take federal land and from opting out of federal health care reform to trying to restrict the activities of federal law enforcement.
"In the past, all we've been able to do is send messages. This year we have legislation to specifically challenge federal authority," said Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, one of the founders of the states' rights oriented Patrick Henry Caucus, which drove much of the year's legislative agenda.
"We're doing something besides asking the federal government to be nice to us," he said. "Bullies don't unilaterally give up power. You've got to stand up to them and punch them in the nose."
Patrick Henry Caucus members even found time to star in an over-the-top video heralding their devotion to states' rights and the founding fathers.
Now their goal is to work with colleagues in other states to push the agenda around the country. Members of the caucus already have been in touch with lawmakers in Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Texas, Arizona and Virginia, discussing their ideas.
"It does not end at midnight," Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo.
As the session wore on, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, appeared to become more and more frustrated with the drumbeat of state sovereignty, scolding his Republican colleagues for wasting the body's time and the taxpayers' money in pursuit of lost causes.
"I think they've vented. That's what it was," he said. "It was a long venting session and if you want to send a message about how frustrated, angry and unhappy you are, I suppose the message has been sent. I don't see a lot of constructive policymaking that's come of this."
Ultimately, the Legislature's action on several of the states rights bills will move the battle to court, which the sponsors say was partly their goal. Legislative attorneys have warned that the Utah-made gun exemption and the attempt to use eminent domain have a high likelihood of being deemed unconstitutional by judges.
Gov. Gary Herbert made state sovereignty a key piece of his inaugural and State of the State addresses.
"Federalism is a necessary part of having good government and the pendulum might swing back and forth on occasion," he said. "There is clearly in my view a rebirth of the concern of the federal government being too big and overreaching its authority into the states."
Herbert signed the gun exemption into law and has several other bills on his desk awaiting action.
The furor over states' rights almost overshadowed the struggle to balance the state budget, a daunting task as lawmakers entered the session facing a shortfall of more than $700 million, in part because of the expiration of more than $400 million in federal stimulus money that propped up the budget last year.
After considerable wrangling between the legislative leaders and the governor, who said entering the session that public education was his top priority, Utah schools were trimmed by less than $10 million.
Higher education took a larger cut and students will likely see tuition increases of about 10 percent on the average in the coming year.
All told, legislators cut about $90 million from the $11.1 billion state budget for the coming year. Legislators bucked Herbert and pushed through a $1 per pack increase in the state's cigarette tax, which is expected to generate $44 million in revenue.
Herbert opposed tax increases coming into the session but said Thursday he will not veto it.
"Politics is the art of compromise," Herbert said. "Public education is my No. 1 priority. Am I going to come down on the side of education or am I going to veto the tobacco tax? I can't do both."
Herbert said he is hopeful that when legislators return next year, they won't be facing the same flood of red ink and predicts there could be as much as $200 million growth in tax collections to help restore some of the painful cuts that have been made.
Potential disputes over gay-rights issues were negotiated away with an agreement among legislators on both sides to stand down for a year. And an attempt to amend Utah's Constitution to prohibit preferential treatment based on race, sex or national origin fell short of getting the votes needed in the House to put the measure on the ballot.
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