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Utah Legislature Days 8 & 9: Medicaid Rollback, Navajo Code Talkers, Base Budgets

Photo of Navajo Nation representatives.
Cory Dinter for KUER
Representatives of the Navajo Nation were recognized as the Utah Senate voted on a resolution to honor Navajo Code Talkers.

Updated 6:58 p.m. MST 2/5/19

Now that a controversial bill to scale back voter-approved Medicaid expansion has passed the Senate, it next heads to the House Business and Labor Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

Supporters of Proposition 3, which Utah voters passed by 53 percent in the November election, continue their full-court press to try to stop the bill. But Republican leaders are eager to move on to other items on their lengthy agenda.

Gov. Gary Herbert, notably, has signaled support for the effort but has yet to commit to signing legislation into law. Paul Edwards, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, said the governor will “refrain from commenting on specifics” as lawmakers continue tweaking the law.

More committee hearings on Tuesday mean lots of interesting, but little bills are starting to percolate as legislation moves to either the House or Senate.

Both chambers began passing their base budgets; those allow government to continue functioning while lawmakers figure out how much more they want to spend on things such as infrastructure, veterans affairs and public schools. Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said this year’s state budget will add up to about $17 billion, with the largest share — $6 billion — going to social services (including Medicaid expansion).

Other highlights include:

  • On Tuesday a Senate committee unanimously approved a proposal to make the Utah Constitution gender neutral. The document currently reads, “All men have the inherent and inalienable right to enjoy and defend their lives and liberties.” But under a proposal sponsored by Republican Sen. Deidre Henderson, that would change to, “all persons.” It would also replace other words like “he,” “his,” “husband,” and “wife” with gender neutral terms.
  • Rep. Sandra Hollins’ proposal to remove slavery from the state constitution also got unanimous support during its first hearing in a House committee.
  • On the heels of a devastating fire season, a House committee approved a bill that would require public lands managers to notify the state about planned prescribed burns a week in advance.
  • A bad sign for new gun bills? A House committee approved a resolution that basically says the gun laws currently on the books are fine.
  • Both chambers passed a resolution Monday honoring Navajo Code Talkers, who used their indigenous language to communicate secret messages during World War II. The resolution designates August 14 as Navajo Code Talkers Day in Utah. More than a dozen of them were killed in World War II; only eight of the roughly 400 Code Talkers are alive today.
  • The full Senate approved a resolution encouraging the study of water banking to plan for population growth in the coming decades. According to the legislation, water banking allows “waterusers to ‘deposit’ unused water into the bank in years when they do not need it so that otherusers in the region can lease the water.”
  • Utah has a teacher shortage, and Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, wants to find out why. Moss introduced a bill on Monday allocating $8,000 for the State Board of Education to design an optional exit survey for teachers to take when they leave the profession. Moss says the state has yet to collect hard data on the problem, and doing so could help Utah tackle teacher retention and recruiting. Facing some resistance from Republicans who argued that exit interviews should be left to the discretion of individual schools, the bill passed 48-24. It next goes to the Senate.
  • The last time lawmakers touched civil asset forfeiture reformwas 2017. That’s the controversial legal process law enforcement uses to seize cash and other assets from people suspected of being involved in a crime. This year, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is leading the effort to create more oversight when law enforcement officers seize property. During an animated hour-plus hearing on Monday, Weiler laid out modest reforms that even the ACLU of Utah argued “didn’t go far enough.” Law enforcement officials uniformly panned the bill, warning that any changes could hamstring their ability to crack down on drug cartels. One witness even brought a 2 lb. block of heroin as a prop. Weiler’s bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary and Law Enforcement committee, 4-1, and next heads to the full Senate.
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