Utah technically has 104 legislators — 29 senators and 75 House members. But those elected officials are looking over their shoulders at ballot initiatives that may convert the state’s 1.5 million registered voters into the real lawmakers controlling this year’s agenda.
As the 2018 Legislature convenes Monday, leaders acknowledge they want to undercut two ballot initiatives: one that seeks to raise taxes for education by $715 million annually, and one to expand Medicaid fully for the poor.
They hope steps that would not go as far as the initiatives would will satisfy voters.
“I hope they see it and say, ‘Some good things are happening here,’” and that will dissuade them from passing the initiatives, said House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
But House Democratic leader Brian King, who supports the ballot drives, says they result from legislators doing too little for too long.
“You have these initiatives crop up because people get so frustrated that the Legislature is not responding to their desires,” the Salt Lake City Democrat said. That’s important for us to take to heart at the Legislature” and may finally prod real action.
A raft of other topics high on this year’s agenda including fights over Utah’s new toughest-in-the-nation drunken driving law, tax reform, homelessness, air quality and restructuring the scandal-tainted Utah Transit Authority.
The session may also be spiced by a number of other debates: outlawing hand-held cellphone use while driving, cutting back on the number of days fireworks are allowed, maybe blocking state-paid health care for children of legal immigrants and even a bill to make the Utahraptor the official state dinosaur (and leave the Allosaurus as the state fossil).
Legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert all say, as they do just about every year, that improving education is the state’s top priority. And extra pressure for that comes from the Our Schools Now initiative that would raise taxes for education by $715 million per year.
Herbert contends such a tax hike would hurt Utah’s economy, and essentially kill the golden goose of low taxes that attracts new industry, creates jobs and fuels what has been one of the nation’s strongest economies.
So Herbert and GOP leaders are planning to cobble together more education money through a mixture of state tax changes, use of a possible windfall from recent federal tax bill and taking advantage of extra revenue the state projects it will receive in next year’s budget.
With all that, “We can get close” to matching what the initiative would produce, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said last week.
For example, the state estimates it will receive $382 million more in the coming year than previously expected in ongoing tax revenue. Herbert proposes to use 72 percent, or about $275 million, of that for education. Legislative leaders support using much of it for schools, but warn current laws may mandate spending a lot of it elsewhere.
Herbert has been pushing to remove earmarks that funnel some taxes for specific purposes, such as highways, to give policymakers greater discretion to fund other priorities, including schools. He also is angling to eliminate scores of tax exemptions for various industries that have accumulated through the decades.
Cox, last week, also called for taxing more online sales. Some large online retailers such as Amazon recently voluntarily agreed to collect such tax in Utah, “but much more could be done,” Cox said.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser seeks another interesting tax reform: forcing highway users to cover more of the state’s transportation costs so the $600 million now coming annually from the state general fund to subsidize highways could be transferred to schools. Hughes endorses the idea.
Niederhauser, R-Sandy, supports increasing the gasoline tax as one method to do that. Also, he notes that electric and alternative-fuel vehicles now escape the gas tax entirely, and he backs proposals to raise their registration fees or charge a per-mile-traveled tax on them.
At the same time, Niederhauser has introduced a bill to make collection of electronic tolls easier. He said that could lead to a toll road in Little Cottonwood Canyon and maybe elsewhere.
Leaders are also looking at the recent federal tax bill as a way to funnel money to schools.
State income taxes are based on federal definitions. If the state makes no changes to its system, some estimate the federal reforms might generate an additional $75 million to $150 million, although most caution the state still is unsure of the amount.
King, the House Democratic leader who says not enough has been done for education, agrees that legislative action on these fronts “would make it easier for the Legislature to go back to the people to say, ’Look don’t write us off so quickly … we are serious that when we get extra money, that [education] is where we are going to put it.”
GOP lawmakers are talking about some expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state program to provide health care for the poor, even though Republicans for years have voted down all but tiny expansions for the most vulnerable populations — such as homeless adults.
One reason is the initiative that calls for fully expanding Medicaid, which would cover up to 120,000 more Utahns who earn 138 percent of poverty level or less. Another reason is the Trump administration has signaled willingness to provide waivers for a less-than-full expansion that Utah lawmakers have long sought.
Hughes said the House had previously rejected expansion of Medicaid largely because it would need to be open-ended to cover anyone who qualified, making it hard to determine how much it would cost annually.
Also, House members wanted to offer Medicaid only for those at 100 percent of the poverty level, and the Obama administration wanted expansion for those up to 138 percent of that level. The Affordable Care Act offers subsidized insurance to those between 100 percent and 138 percent of poverty already, said Hughes.
Senate Democratic leader Gene Davis of Salt Lake City said he will introduce a bill to seek full Medicaid expansion, not a watered-down version. He doubts it will pass, but says it will draw attention to what the initiative could do if lawmakers don’t act.
Groups are gathering signatures for several other initiatives — such as allowing medical marijuana, using an independent commission to draw political boundaries to reduce gerrymandering and cementing into law a signature-gathering route to the primary ballot.
“My guess is we will have bills that will address them,” or at least some of them, Niederhauser said. Lawmakers prefer dealing with them rather than through initiatives, he added, “because it’s easier in the future to deal with any changes we need to make.”
An exception may be medical marijuana. He said lawmakers feel strongly that drugs “ought to be distributed through a pharmacy,” and “we’re concerned the federal government now is going to potentially enforce their law [banning marijuana] instead of overlooking it.”
Hughes, the House speaker, said continued support of Operation Rio Grande — cleaning up crime in the area around the homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake City, and getting aid to the homeless — will be a continuing focus.
He said its current $67 million budget will likely need to be boosted by a few million dollars.
“We will have some additional requests that will come from additional jurisdictions” for help as the homeless and some problems with crime have dispersed from the Rio Grande area. That will include some help with law enforcement, and some for facilities elsewhere.
Davis, the Senate Democratic leader, said, “Have we cured homelessness? No. Have we put frustration into drug dealers? Yes. They are still selling, but they are frustrated. We are helping people.”
Last year, legislators passed a law that will lower the blood-alcohol level to be considered drunk while driving from 0.08 to 0.05. It goes into effect on Dec. 30 and when it does, Utah will have the toughest DUI law in the nation. Groups have pushed for a repeal, saying it will hurt Utah tourism or possibly allow police to arrest some who have as little as one drink.
“There will be some minor tweaks to that, but it looks like that will be here to stay,” predicts Niederhauser. Hughes, who had opposed the bill for unintended consequences, isn’t so sure. “I can’t predict its fate.”
Just last week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called for all states to adopt a 0.05 level.
Still King, the House Democratic leader, said he expects to see bills to delay or repeal the law, or perhaps offer different penalties for driving at 0.05 or 0.08.
Legislative leaders expect debate and possible action on restructuring the Utah Transit Authority.
A legislative task force has recommended replacing its current board and CEO with a three-member commission appointed by the governor, similar to the State Tax Commission.
Hughes, a former UTA chairman, said the proposed change would install full-time commissioners who would “really have their eyes on what’s going on there, and be a little bit more directly accountable.”
King also seems to be on board for a change at UTA.
“For 10 to 15 years, we’ve heard about scandals, self-dealing, compensation that is really quite high,” King said. “The facts suggest that something is wrong. I want to see something done there because UTA’s image suffers.”
The legislative task force also recommended a change to allow state highway funds to be shared with transit. Leaders say restructuring UTA would need to happen first to win support for that — but that highway funds going to some transit could help reduce congestion and pollution.
Pollution always is a big issue early in legislative sessions when inversions hang in the Salt Lake Valley. The governor is proposing more money for better monitoring and research, which Democratic leader King praises.
“It sounds like a ‘nothingburger,’ but it really isn’t,” he said. “If we can get more money to study more effectively where the clean air problems exist and which neighborhoods they affect disproportionately, we can do a better job of directing solutions.”
He notes a few bills are coming, including possibly requiring emissions testing for diesel vehicles in Utah County and one to increase penalties for “rolling coal” vehicles that intentionally emit dark emissions.
She notes that University of Utah studies have said cellphone use while driving is as dangerous as drunken driving. The expected debate on tougher drunken-driving laws might improve chances to finally pass the talking-while-driving ban, Moss said.
Fireworks now can legally be set off for seven days around Independence and Pioneer days. The bill would cut that back to July 2 to July 5 and July 22 to July 25. It would also continue to allow fireworks around New Year’s Day.
Christensen says he is proposing the measure to promote self-reliance and combat creeping socialism. Critics said it is a mean-spirited attack on immigrants, mostly Latinos.