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5 Things To Watch For As 2018 Utah Legislative Session Begins

Phillip Massey

Utah lawmakers will convene Monday for the 2018 General Session of the 63rd Utah Legislature. With more than 1,200 bills already filed, lawmakers expect another record breaking year of laws passed during the 45-day session. Here are five things to watch for this year. 

Now that Congress has passed a tax overhaul, the Utah Legislature wants to as well. A 200-page draft bill is already circulating, but proposals remain vague. Gov. Gary Herbert and the Republican majority favor an approach that will "broaden the base" and lower overall tax rates. Ideas floated include the addition of user fees for streaming services like Netflix and toll roads. An increase to the gas tax is also seen as critical to funding infrastructure. 

"Everything is on the table," said Kristen Cox, the governor's budget director, last month, before the unveiling of the governor's $16 billion budget. 

What remains to be seen is the impact that federal tax reform will have on the state's coffers. Some analysis suggests an additional $200 million could flow to the state as a result of the changes. The state could either hang onto that or send it back to taxpayers in the form of a tax cut. 

Several citizen-led initiatives are gathering signatures in order to appear on the ballot later this year. Different groups are eager to see action on issues like full Medicaid expansion, increased school funding, medical marijuana and more, but many Republican lawmakers think the initiatives go too far.

Look for ways the Legislature may try to partially preempt the ballot initiatives. For example, some lawmakers believe that if they can get more money for education, voters will reject a tax increase to fund the Our Schools Now initiative later this year. 

Several longtime legislators have announced this will be their last session, including House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper. That will set up some jockeying among Republicans for who will next serve as Speaker and other leadership changes. Democratic Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck says this will also be her last term after a decade representing downtown Salt Lake, as it will be for Rep. Becky Edwards, R-Salt Lake. 

Look for Chavez-Houck and other outgoing incumbents to make a final push for bills they've long prioritized. For Chavez-Houck, that may mean another go at a Death with Dignity bill to allow physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients in Utah. For Hughes, that could mean large appropriations to combat homelessness and opioids — two issues the Speaker says he'll be laser focused on this session.  

Ideally, someone wouldn’t pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income to housing costs, but many Utahns pay more than that. According to some estimates, the state needs nearly 47,000 affordable units to meet demand. As elected officials continue efforts to alleviate homelessness in downtown Salt Lake City, affordable housing can be a powerful tool.  

One idea percolating at the state capitol is to impose fines on cities that don’t provide enough affordable units. Leaders in some of Salt Lake City’s bedroom communities have resisted high-density and multifamily units going up around the valley. 

Last year Utah became the first state in the nation to lower its legal DUI limit from .08 to .05. While that law doesn’t take effect until the end of this year, lawmakers will spend his session tinkering with it. Some have expressed support for a tiered penalty system for DUIs. 

Also, fewer states are selling the “light beer” seen in Utah grocery stores, so big breweries like Anheuser-Busch may stop making it altogether. If that happens, Utah lawmakers will need to come up with a solution. One possibility is to raise the limit allowed on grocery store shelves. However, Republican Sen. Jerry Stevenson, who handles liquor legislation, said Utah lawmakers may push the issue to next year. 

Subscribe to 45 Days, KUER's political podcast. Each week, KUER's reporters recap what happened at the Legislature — and why it matters — all the way through the closing bell on March 8. To keep up with what's happening on Capitol Hill, be sure to subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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