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Utah Legislature: Fighting Fair with the Feds

Dan Bammes
Navajo Code Talkers Alfred Peaches and Keith Little with their families on the floor of the Utah Senate.

By Dan Bammes

Salt Lake City, UT –

The Utah legislature has hardly been reluctant to pick fights with the federal government in recent years, but a House committee approved a bill yesterday that defines the rules for those fights. Republican Representative Ken Ivory of West Jordan is pushing House Bill 76, which provides additional funding for the state's Constitutional Defense Commission and tells it to try negotiation and mediation before taking the federal government to court.

But it also spells out a list of powers given to the federal government by the U-S Constitution and tells the commission to judge federal action against that list, using the meaning of the provision at the time it was drafted - as far back as 1789.

I thought it was fascinating. There oughta be a list out there that just lists the enumerated powers. There's just not. There's just not, and we talk so often about the government being one of enumerated powers, but there's no list anywhere.

Ivory also calls his bill a "soft repeal" of the 17th Amendment, which gave the power to elect U-S Senators to the people instead of state legislators. Gary Alder told the committee the job of standing up to the federal government belongs to Utah's Congressional delegation. He called the bill a "back-door" approach.

If Senator Hatch and Senator Lee fight on the front end for state's rights, you will know that those senators know that it is important to the people. If not, we're just plain stuck, state legislation notwithstanding.

House Bill 76 passed the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on a vote of 10 to 1. The same committee passed HJR-21, a resolution demanding that Congress give western states control of 5-percent of the federal land within their borders.

A bill to outlaw the marijuana substitute called "spice" passed a key vote in the Utah Senate yesterday. H-B 23 has already passed the House, but it will have to go back there after it was amended to ban so-called "bath salts," stimulant drugs that are sold under various names. The Senate sponsor is Republican Allen Christensen.

This is 'Ivory Wave' and some of the similar ones to that. This would put the same penalties on these, basically, as there are on marijuana and see if we can't get these off of our streets and under control a little bit better.

House Bill 23 has one more vote in the Senate before it goes back to the House.

The name of the budget game in the legislature right now is "backfill." Base budgets have already been passed that impose seven-percent cuts on almost every agency and program in state government. For Utah's prison system, that means sixteen million dollars. For the state Board of Pardons, which has to hold a hearing before it releases any inmate, it'll be a scramble to deal with prisoners who've committed more serious crimes. Chairman Clark Harms says it'll be a big increase in their workload.

If the base budget that was passed, which contemplates a 16-million dollar reduction for the Department of Corrections, if that stands, in addition to everyone else we would normally release in a year, we will have to release 850 people this year and for every year thereafter who we otherwise wouldn't want to release.

Harms made his case to an appropriations subcommittee, which has the job of prioritizing requests for additional funding. If state revenue projections due next week show more money is available, the highest priority items will be funded - but that leaves less for items further down the list.

Judi Hilman with the Utah Health Policy Project is working to maintain funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which she says has been a huge success. She's critical of the "base budget now, backfill if we can afford it" approach.

It's a very humbling exercise. We've gone through it, this is my 12th session up here, and we've gone through it almost every year. It's getting tired, that exercise. Sometimes, frankly, it feels a little sadistic.

Appropriations subcommittees will meet twice more to firm up their priorities and the final decisions will be made by the executive appropriations committee in the last days of the session.

Finally, the Navajo Code Talkers were honored by the Utah legislature yesterday. About 400 Navajos served with the U-S Marine Corps during World War Two. They created a code based on their language that the Japanese were never able to break. Senator David Hinkins, who represents 12-thousand members of the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, urged support for a new museum in New Mexico that will keep their story alive.

It's the greatest story that was never told, basically, and so we want to make sure this story does get told of the contributions made to our country and the greatness that these men are.

Two of the surviving Code Talkers - Alfred Peaches and Keith Little - attended yesterday's floor sessions. They were honored with a moment of silence in memory of their service and their fallen comrades.

NPR's story on Florida's ban on so-called 'bath salts.'

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