Utah can help women and the poor by eliminating food tax, voting to cover birth control, religious leaders and lawmakers say

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Speaker of the House Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, center, pose for a photo with charter school children during an event in the Capitol rotunda, Thursday, January 25, 2018.

Utah could help its businesses, poor residents, women and working families if lawmakers passed a slate of bills lauded by legislators and religious groups on Thursday.

This session there are bills to expand Medicaid to cover long-term birth control, require state agencies to offer paid parental leave for employees and remove the sales tax on food, among others. Some of the bills came out of the work of the Women in the Economy Commission, which focused on helping working Utah women.

Together, a package of a dozen bills make up what a bipartisan group called the “family economic prosperity priorities” for the five remaining working weeks lawmakers have at the Capitol. Here are some of the highlights.

Paid family medical leave (Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake) •

Paid family medical leave

Paid family medical leave (Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake) • Edwards said she’ll propose requiring employers to offer two weeks of paid medical leave for their workers. It would create a tax credit for businesses that offer paid and family medical leave worth 3 percent of the wages paid to employees who are taking the leave. Employers would have to pay at least half of the workers’ wages during the leave, Edwards said.

“This provides an opportunity for employers to support workers who are experiencing the need for care for a serious health condition of a spouse, parent or child,” Edwards said. “This does not include leave for vacation, personal leave, or medical and sick leave. This is separate from all of those.”

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake speaks at a housing rally in the capitol rotunda Thursday Feb 9. She is sponsoring HB 36 to help get more affordable housing, whether for sale or rent onto the market quickly. It is sponsored in the senate by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. Salt Lake Mayor Jackie Biskupski, left.

Paid parental leave for state employees

HB156 would offer paid parental leave for state and university employees who have worked for more than a yer. Employees would get six weeks of leave upon the birth or adoption of child. Rep. Elizabeth Weight , D-West Valley City, said the bill would result in fewer people on state assistance because they won’t have to take unpaid time off after having a baby.

“We see that the loyalty to an employer, even the state government, relies heavily on the support for individual and family interests,” Weight said.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Elizabeth Weight speaks at a press conference as the Democratic Caucus and educators from across the state unveil their legislative proposals to help solve the teacher shortage crisis in Utah, Friday, February 17, 2017.

Earned income tax credit

HB57 would cover 25,000 people from families that have been in poverty for generations. Low-income workers would be eligible for an earned income tax credit worth up to $600, which is 10 percent of the federal tax credit, though the average would be about $240. The bill has bipartisan support, despite its $6 million cost, and would make Utah the 30th state to offer such a credit if passed.

“This would help the people that need it most in our state,” said Rep. John Westwood, a Republican from Cedar City.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune "I'm wondering why this is even here?" asked Rep. John R. Westwood of the NSA's Data Center during Wednesday's Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee as Rep. Marc K. Roberts presented his draft legislation on the prohibition on electronic data collection, November 19, 2014. Roberts' bill that aims to shut off the 1.7 million gallons of water a day necessary to cool the computers at the U.S. National Security Agency Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, speaks during the Family Economic Prosperity Priorities press conference, Thursday, January 25, 2018. Quinn is sponsoring HB 148 Tax Revisions - that would eliminate the 1.75% tax on food.

No more food tax

HB148 would eliminate the tax on groceries and raise the general sales tax by 0.24 percent. The Legislature considered doing the opposite last year, raising the sales tax on food and lowering the general sales tax because taxes on food are considered highly stable regardless of the condition of the economy.

Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, gave his bill a 50-50 chance at passing this session, saying he would face opposition in the House. Rather than broadening the base, as Gov. Gary Herbert and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser have called for, it would narrow it. The bill would raise about $1.2 million a year.

“We may not win,” he told a gathering of religious leaders. But he noted lawmakers have moved on from talking about restoring the full sales tax on food as part of tax discussions this year, and he took some credit for that. “We’ve stopped that conversation.”

Incentives for child care

Edwards’ bill isn’t yet finished. She said it will offer tax incentives for savings accounts for employees and their companies to pay toward child-care costs. She said the bill will help with the increasingly expensive cost of child care — which is more than $600 a month in Salt Lake County, according to the Department of Workforce Services.

“We know that child care remains a paramount concern for women and families across the state,” Edwards said.

Birth control coverage

HB12 would expand Medicaid to cover intrauterine devices for low-income women. The concept is known to have an impact in helping low-income women out of poverty and also reducing the rate of abortion, as all but seven states have expanded Medicaid to cover long-acting birth control such as IUDs.

The bill’s Republican sponsor, Rep. Ray Ward, a physician from Bountiful, noted “every red state across the deep red south” offers similar coverage.

“If they can figure it out, I’m sure that we can figure it out,” Ward said Thursday.

HB12 would cost the state about $805,000 in two years, according to nonpartisan estimates.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, right, summarizes HB12 which requires the Medicaid program to reimburse providers separately for the insertion of long-acting reversible contraception immediately after childbirth, during the House Health and Human Services Standing Committee meeting on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City Wednesday January 24, 2018.