Utah Legislature convenes Monday to tackle the known and unknown

Published: Saturday, Jan. 21 2012 4:41 p.m. MST

Utah GOP Reps. Lynn Hemmingway and Mark Wheatley talk at the state Capitol during a special session in Salt Lake City Monday, Oct. 3, 2011. Lawmakers will convene their general session for 2012 on Monday.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers each year hope for a calm legislative session, but it rarely happens. Something unexpected always comes up.

Last year it was feral cats. One legislator wanted to make it legal to shoot them. And then there was lawmakers' assault on the state's open records law, which nearly blew the roof off the state Capitol with public protests.

"There's always a sleeper," said Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. "There's always an issue that nobody anticipates might be the big one. You just never know."

And, as Lockhart said, "that's kind of the scary part."

The not knowing begins Monday as lawmakers convene the 2012 Legislature at the state Capitol.

"We're hoping the highlight of the session isn't something that no one anticipated that comes down from Washington, D.C.," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. "We're hoping this is more of a calm year where we deal with the needs of the state."

Among the known issues this year are what Waddoups calls the "old reliables" such as the state budget and public education. Illegal immigration, liquor laws, transportation and energy also top the agenda.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert proposed a $12.9 billion budget, including an $111 million boost for public schools to cover the cost of additional students, to expand all-day kindergarten and other early intervention programs, add testing and start new charter schools. It does not include a tax increase.

The governor looks for legislators to pass a budget that encourages economic growth and job creation.

"We expect a vibrant dialog about critical issues of the day by people who truly want to be a sound voice for their constituents, and a focus on what it will take to keep Utah on a steady road to economic recovery," said Herbert spokeswoman Ally Isom.

Freshman Sen. Casey Anderson, R-Cedar City, said he plans to propose restoring the sales tax on food and lowering the overall income and corporate tax rate as well as withhold some general fund money from transportation and raise the gasoline tax.

"Overall, it's probably a net decrease, but there's a lot of ramifications to income, sales and gas tax that I think will generate a lot of discussion as he rolls that out," Waddoups said.

The Legislature, controlled by Republicans in the House and Senate, has a little more to spend this year than last — $280 million in ongoing funds and $120 million in one-time money to spend in the current fiscal year.

Requests for those funds have already reached about $500 million, said Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. But legislative leaders want to dedicate much of the new money into reserve accounts and to paying down debt.

"We know the economy goes in cycles. It'll go down again. There's no doubt about it and we want to be in the same strong position we were before this one," Lockhart said.

Legislators also will look to fund the growth in education, the speaker said.

Education, again, is a priority for House and Senate Democrats, who are greatly outnumbered in both chambers.

Democrats plan to push a package of bills they're calling the Best Schools Initiative aimed at giving every student a great teacher, individualized attention, world-class curriculum and neighborhood support.

Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, and Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, also hope to address the state's liquor laws. The two lawmakers held a series of public meetings with the hospitality and tourism industries about changes the Legislature made last year.

"Sometimes we do things that are not well-received both locally and nationally," Romero said.

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