Lawmakers back balanced budget amendment, with reservations

Published: Wednesday, July 20 2011 10:37 p.m. MDT

Rep. Brian Doughty is sworn in by Speaker of the House Rebecca Lockhart at the state Capitol on Wednesday.

Mike Terry, Mike Terry, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers approved a resolution in a special session Wednesday backing a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but not before raising a number of concerns.

Even House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, for the first time turned over her gavel to tell fellow lawmakers she would support the resolution, "but I'm not happy doing it."

Lockhart, who had criticized the resolution as "prescriptive" during an earlier House GOP caucus, said she wanted to make it clear the resolution did not commit lawmakers to approve the amendment, should it pass Congress.

The resolution mirrors the balanced budget amendment introduced earlier this year by Utah GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee. The amendment is drawing new attention in Washington because of the ongoing debate over raising the nation's debt ceiling.

The resolution's sponsor, Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said Utah's endorsement of the amendment provides Hatch and Lee "the political support they need" to advance it.

"It's very timely, and I think it will help," Reid said.

Although the 2011 Legislature passed a more general resolution backing a balanced budget amendment, Utah lawmakers are the first to endorse the Hatch-Lee proposal. Reid said he hopes other states will follow.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said the more general resolution never "got any play because of timing." This resolution, he said, is different.

"I think this can have a big impact," Waddoups said.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who put the resolution on the special session agenda, was pleased lawmakers chose to support "the good work of Sens. Hatch and Lee."

"Today's vote simply reminds Washington to get its financial house in order," said Ally Isom, the governor's spokeswoman.

Lockhart had a stronger message for Washington, D.C. in her remarks from the floors.

"Do your job. Balance the budget. We do it every year," she said. "What's wrong with you? It's high time you grow up."

Other House Republicans also expressed reservations about the resolution. Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, said he worried the amendment was seen as "magically" making all of the country's financial woes go away.

"This is a nice message bill. It will be a nice message amendment," Sumsion said.

Despite the lackluster show of support, the House voted 51-12 for the resolution, while the Senate approved it with only one dissenting vote. Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, said she could not support the cap limiting the federal budget.

"That is not the fiscally responsible way of running government," Robles said.

The five other items on the agenda for the single-day special session, which ended late Wednesday afternoon, generated little debate.

There was some discussion about the latest version of an insurance bill vetoed by the governor, but in the end, it passed easily. The bill, HB2003, represented a compromise with the governor's office.

Herbert had resisted creating new categories of insurance plans for the state's health exchange program for small businesses, the sponsor, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said.

Dunnigan's bill now allows insurers outside the exchange to offer lower rates for a parent with only one child. It also makes other changes, including permitting insurers to charge older policyholders a little more and younger policyholders a little less.

Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, a leader of Utah's health care reform efforts before he was defeated in his bid for another term as speaker, opposed the bill.

"We create winners and losers inside the exchange and outside the exchange. We create winners and losers among the young and the old," Clark said.

Dunnigan said it was "cumbersome" to modify the health exchange program and that any changes that work outside it could be adopted later. He also said any rate changes authorized by the bill would be modest.

Another bill Herbert had threatened to veto established a prison relocation authority to study moving the state prison from Point of the Mountain. HB2002 ended up adding another appointee from the governor to the authority after some last-minute negotiations.

Other bills were less controversial, including SB2002, seen as making a number of minor fixes to alcoholic beverage control legislation that passed last session.

HB2001, a bill that died the last night of the 2011 Legislature allowing justice court judges to be evaluated differently for upcoming retention elections, sailed through the House and Senate.

The same with SB2001, which extends the deadline for special service districts to issue bonds secured by federal mineral lease payments by 10 years, to Dec. 31, 2020.

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com, jpage@desnews.com Twitter: dnewspolitics

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