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.
One example, he said, is the so-called "Zion curtain," a partition the state now requires in beer-only restaurants to keep customers from seeing servers open beer cans or bottles.
The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control came under fire last year after a legislative audit showed it was rife with mismanagement. Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, intends to introduce legislation to restructure how the agency is governed.
Lockhart said there's also some desire in the House for expanding the number of private retail outlets that contract with the state to sell alcohol.
Like liquors law, illegal immigration generates heated controversy. Since the Legislature approved HB116, which establishes a guest worker program for undocumented immigrants, conservative Republicans and tea partyers have called for its repeal.
Other immigration-related bills may include eliminating in-state college tuition and driving privilege cards for illegal immigrants.
Legislative leaders say they anticipate changes to the bill but not a repeal. Without a federal waiver, the guest worker program can't be implemented. "Maybe we can make it inactive," Waddoups said.
A new wrinkle this session is the number of former and current lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, running for offices outside the Legislature, raising the specter of more than the usual grandstanding.
"I anticipate there will be some of that," Waddoups said.
Romero and Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, are running for Salt Lake County mayor. Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, is running for U.S. Senate and Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, is running for a U.S. House seat.
"You'll see McAdams and Romero competing for positions that might affect Salt Lake County. You'll see those House members running for Congress who haven't resigned showing how they're going to change the world when they get to Washington," Waddoups said.4 comments on this story
With all the resignations and the death of Republican Sen. Dennis Stowell, there will be several new faces in the Legislature this session. Newcomers in the Senate are Anderson, Todd Weiler of Woods Cross, and Aaron Osmond of South Jordan, all Republicans. New House members are Democrat Brian Doughty of Salt Lake, and Republicans Lowry Snow of St. George, Stewart Barlow of Fruit Heights, and Dan McCay of Riverton.
One issue Waddoups sees as a sleeper is an effort among some lawmakers to have Utah join a movement urging the president of the United States be elected by popular vote.
"It's gaining momentum," he said. "It's probably going to be fairly volatile."