Legislative Session Wraps Up
By Jenny Brundin
Salt Lake City, UT – Lawmakers wrapped up their 45-day legislative session finalizing a $12 billion dollar spending plan - and - signing off on major reform bills in immigration and Medicaid. The final week though, was filled with controversy, capped off with a storming of the Capitol of sorts last night. KUER's Jenny Brundin brings us this legislative wrap-up.
CROWD SHOUTING "REPEAL, REPEAL . "
The People's House turned into just that last night, as hundreds of flash-light waving demonstrators from all walks of life stormed into the Capitol, calling for light to be shined on government records.
SOUND: BEATING DRUM .
They beat drums, chanted, sang and shouted "repeal" - angered over legislators' passing of House Bill 477. The bill restricts public access to government records and was pushed through the legislature in two days. Donald Boyle has never protested anything before in his life. But he said he was shocked at how out of touch lawmakers could be with their constituents. Boyle said transparency is sacred.
BOYLE: Around the world there are nations fighting to establish freedom and transparency in their governments and here we are doing the reverse.
After a public outcry and condemnation from national open government experts, earlier this week lawmakers recalled the controversial bill .Senate President Michael Waddoups.
WADDOUPS: I apologize if it went fast and as a result we're making amendments and we're making sure that the public will have a chance.
A chance to weigh in on the bill that exempts legislative voice mails, instant messages, video chats, and text messages from being released to the public. It requires that information-seekers provide a preponderance of evidence to support disclosure. Governor Gary Herbert intervened, asking for the recall. He says he couldn't veto it because lawmakers had the votes to override a veto. They'll be hearings on the bill and then, says Herbert.
HERBERT: It allows me to call them back into special session in June and then I think we'll have a better produce than what we currently have on the books.
eanwhile, a group of citizens has filed a petition to place changes to Utah's open records law on the next general election ballot. A little earlier in the day ..things were a little calmer ..Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins leaned back in his chair, a broad smile on his face. It was the final day of another grueling legislative session after all - as he shared his final thoughts with reporters.
JENKINS: Fiscally, it's been a great year.
Utah lawmakers wrapped up 6 and a half weeks of handwringing over the state budget, finishing up in an enviable position compared to most states. Legislators kept prisoners from having to be released early, found money for growth in Medicaid and critical social services, and funded public education at levels the Governor requested. There was money for new students for the first time in three years. State superintendent Larry Shumway was pleased, but also put things into perspective.
SHUMWAY: The last couple of years we've added 25,000 students and we've lost 200 million dollars, so we're still not funded where we were three years ago.
There's also money for optional extended day Kindergarten, early reading programs and libraries. It was sharp departure from several years of recessionary slashing. In the process, lawmakers eliminated all but $50million dollars of a structural deficit that had ballooned to $550 million just a couple of years ago, a result of the recession. Lawmakers put back most of the 7 percent cuts they imposed earlier in the session that was an arduous and at times painful process. Democrats criticized the process, as they took phone calls from constituents distressed about cuts that would impact their lives. Representative Brian King:
KING: It causes a lot of heartburn a lot of insecurity, a lot of worry and anxiety that is in the end, unnecessary.
But the Republican majority argues it's a process that makes Utah the best fiscally-managed state in the nation. Money was re-allocated between agencies. Most budgets were cut 1 percent, but higher education is weathering a two percent cut. Senate budget chair Lyle Hillyard.
HILLYARD: Many of the studies and reports we've seen, the tuition is much less than even surrounding states.
This week, University of Utah trustees approved a tuition hike between 7 and 9 percent for next year. Democratic Senate Leader Ross Romero meanwhile, agrees that students are getting a good value in Utah, but notes that colleges and universities have had 13 percent cut over last two years. On other issues, public schools faced an onslaught of bills - more than 110 of them - many of them controversial. Lawmakers passed bills to prevent districts from considering teacher seniority when making layoffs. And a bill that will give schools a letter grade, from A to F. Some Democrats charged that the bills don't have the best interests of students at heart. Hre's Senator Wayne Neiderhauser, who sponsored the school grading bill.
NEIDERHAUSER: There's always resistance to these kinds of changes but these are changes that I believe are inevitable.
Another issue dominating the legislative session was a herculean effort to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. There's some tougher enforcement measures. But there's also a first of its kind guest worker program that allows undocumented immigrants to live and work in Utah. Critics argued that part is unconstitutional. About 50 GOP delegates led by Brandon Beckham gathered in the Capitol in protest.
BECKHAM: Governor we humbly ask that you veto this bill, thank you .
Other immigration experts say Utah won't be able to get the federal waiver it needs. Governor Gary Herbert is more optimistic.
HERBERT: I've got in the last 24 hours communication that comes from a bipartisan group of senators that we see what's going on in Utah and we're taking notice and we kind of like what they're doing but they also recognize we've got to get back in the game. The federal government can no longer sit on the sidelines.
House Republicans, with a bigger majority this year - 58 out of 74 instead of 53 out of 74 - members last year, continued to push resolutions that they said were grounded in conservative principles, such as waging a battle with the federal government. Lawmakers called on Congress to solve illegal immigration, to pass a balanced budget amendment, and to prevent the E.P.A. from regulating greenhouse gases. They also passed a resolution opposing the Interior Department's Wilderness re-inventory and to relinquish all right and title of public land in Utah. Representative Christopher Herrod said the resolutions do more than send a message to Congress.
HERROD: Education is our biggest line item. And when we're not able to develop or tax 67% of our state . It makes it very difficult for us to fund education so if we could get control of that, we will be able to fund our schools at a better rate.
Long-time conservative activist Gayle Ruzicka doesn't see this year's legislature as any more conservative, even with a bigger Republican majority
RUZICKA: The conservative Republicans have always had a majority, so they just added to their majority.
Ruzika was also pleased to see that a bill was killed that would have allowed one party in a gay couple to adopt the biological child of their partner. And lawmakers didn't even allow a hearing for a bill that would have prohibited discriminating against gays and lesbians in jobs and housing. Senator Ben McAdams was the sponsor of those bills.
MCADAMS: People in the legislature have told me that they're not comfortable with this . They don't think it's the right step. I'm not comfortable to admit that religious liberties and non-discrimination protections are incompatible. And so I'm going to work over the interim to build consensus and bring people to the table and hope to get this passed this year.
Gold and silver may soon be legal tender under a bill passed by lawmakers but as for bills that promote clean energy and air quality, there wasn't much action. Clean energy advocates had pushed to have the most up-to-date energy efficiency codes adopted in bill updating fire, energy, electric codes.
BALDWIN: Which would have made all new homes going forward more efficient and saved home owners money.
That's Sara Baldwin of Utah Clean Energy. Lawmakers promised to study the energy code issue during the interim, but Baldwin says extensive study and an ad hoc committee took place during last year's interim session. Baldwin says she's surprised that clean energy and air quality issues aren't on the top of the priority list.
BALDWIN: Especially when one month or two months out of the legislative session we're seeing some of our worst air quality days.
On other budget matters - a few liquor stores will close and some state parks will have restricted hours. There were some welcome budget surprises. $1.5 million dollars for the waiting list for people with disabilities. One of the most significant bills of the legislative session -- was reforming Medicaid which all stakeholders appeared to applaud. The proposal includes moving away from the costly fee-for-service medial system to possibly a "flat fee" per patient per month system. New growth in Medicaid would also be limited. Bill sponsor Senator Dan Liljenquist:
LILJENQUIST: We will save $770 million dollars of state funds during the first seven years alone to $2.5 billion total.
The perennial topic of liquor also saw some action this session. The comprehensive liquor package increases the number of restaurant liquor licenses by 40, but includes no additional licenses for social clubs or taverns. Senator John Valentine explains the underlying philosophy.
VALENTINE: Alcohol comsumption in restaurants makes more sense than in bars and taverns.
With the bump in restaurant liquor licenses, comes an equal bump in the number of enforcement officers. As well, the bill requires bars to charge the same price for a drink every day - no more Superbowl drink specials. Also, guests at hotels won't have to order an entire bottle of wine or liquor through room service. It'll now be legal to order a single drink. At the Capitol I'm Jenny Brundin, KUER News.