We’re more than halfway through the Utah legislative session, and lots of bills have been making big headlines in the state. But with just 45 days, there are probably more than a few that you may have missed. KUER’s Caroline Ballard went to the state Capitol pressroom to catch up with political reporter Sonja Hutson.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: Let’s start with news that broke this morning: Lawmakers are considering making changes to the state’s new anti-gerrymandering law over constitutional concerns.
Sonja Hutson: Prop 4, which was narrowly approved by voters in 2018, basically creates an independent redistricting commission to draw district lines for congressional seats, for state House seats, etc.
Basically, they had some constitutional concerns saying that this infringed on the constitutional right of the Legislature to draw these lines. So over the last year or so, the lawmakers have been in negotiations with Better Boundaries, which is the group that pushed Prop 4. Those negotiations kind of came to an impasse.
The sticking point they came to was about requiring the commission to address partisan gerrymandering and the status of the incumbent of the current district when they were drawing those maps. Basically, what this bill does, that is not yet publicly available, is it takes out that requirement for the commission that they would have to consider those things. Better Boundaries, the group pushing it, says that essentially is the heart of the law, and it's the same thing almost as repealing it.
It's also worth noting that if this goes through, then lawmakers will have changed every single citizen-passed proposition that was approved by voters in 2018, and there are definitely some people who are really upset about that.
CB: There's also some really impactful health care bills making their way through the Legislature. Can you tell me about those?
SH: One I wanted to highlight this week is by Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, which expands Medicaid coverage to prisoners up to 30 days before they're released. It just needs to pass one more vote on the Senate floor in order to pass the Legislature and go to Gov. Gary Herbert's desk.
The Legislature estimates that it'll cost over nine and a half million dollars in the upcoming fiscal year, which is definitely quite a lot.
This is especially interesting in a state like Utah because the state originally opposed full Medicaid expansion. It didn't fully expand it until the beginning of this year, and now we're voting to expand it even more.
CB: Legislative leadership this week also wrapped up a lot of the Sen. Mitt Romney drama from a couple of weeks ago that we saw when the Utah senator voted to convict the president on one article of impeachment.
SH: That's right. On Thursday, [Republican lawmakers] issued a citation voicing support for President Trump. They talked about the growth of the economy tax cuts, money allocated to the military and also reducing the size of the Bears Ears monument here in the state.
This citation, which was signed by Republican legislative leadership, was pitched as kind of an alternative to a resolution censuring Romney for his vote, which they felt would be divisive.
CB: I imagine Democrats had something to say about this?
SH: They certainly did. The House Democrats issued a statement opposing the citation saying it failed to mention the administration's what they call “problematic” issues that have hurt Utahns, and they talked about issues like air quality, refugees, immigrants and education.
CB: Now there is a lot that happens in the Legislature that gets super technical and might not be the most engaging but is also really important for people to know. What's been going on that fits that bill?
SH: So definitely the thing that sticks out this week [as] the most important — and some might say the most boring — story was that we got new budget revenue estimates.
What those numbers show is that lawmakers have almost a billion extra dollars to spend this year, which you might think is a great sign. But legislative leaders say it's actually not because most of that money is tied up in the Education Fund and not in the General Fund, which funds most basic services, basically everything but education.
This is super important because House speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told [reporters] that after just taking care of basic services, the general fund is $50 million in the red. That's without accounting for any bills that require funding that may get passed this session, like an e-cigarette school curriculum bill that passed the House yesterday. So he said it's probably going to be difficult for a lot of bills to get funded this session.
CB: OK that did get pretty technical, so as a reward, can you tell us about a bill a little on the lighter side of things?
SH: Absolutely. There’s a bill by Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salem, that would allow cities and towns to allow people to drive golf carts on highways. It’s already passed the House and passed a Senate committee this week.
Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews
Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson