Utah Legislature boring but busy as session approaches halfway point
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — That giant yawning sound at the top of State Street might be coming from the Utah Legislature.
With half of the 45-day session almost gone, lawmakers have mostly kept their noses to the grindstone churning out a record number of bills, few of which have generated widespread controversy. Lawmakers, though, have yet to tackle in earnest some of the weightier matters.
"We're hearing from constituents and people on the radio and TV and even in the written press somewhat that it's boring up here this year," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorville. "I think that's indicative of the fact that we're working well together."
During her daily press briefings, House Speaker Becky Lockhart breathes a sigh of relief that no issues out of left field have hijacked the 2012 session.
"I think things have gone quite smoothly," the Provo Republican said.
Putting together the state budget, making decisions about public education, overhauling the beleaguered Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act still loom.
Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said revenue projections are about 10 days away, but the state might have some additional money. The Utah County I-15 reconstruction project is about $200 million under budget and the federal mortgage settlement will yield $23 million, he said. The state already is expecting an additional $280 million from increased sales and income tax collections in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
"I think there's kind of an optimism," he said.
Hillyard said he anticipates the Legislature funding public education to the level Gov. Gary Herbert requested.
Lockhart said she was pleased at the number of Utahns who have turned out to weigh in on bills such as the proposals to further restrict discussions of contraception in schools and do away with vehicle safety inspections.
"I think that's very healthy. I'd like to see that continue," she said.
Even Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, whose party is at a decided disadvantage in both chambers, said things are moving pretty well so far.
Pieces of Democrats' public schools initiatives, such as reducing class sizes, are making their way through the House, he said. Romero, though, said he was disappointed to have to rehash sex education in schools, which he said is working well the way it is.
Waddoups cited passage of bills setting new congressional, legislative and state school board boundaries with "minimal conflict" as one accomplishment to date. Also, the long-resisted proposal for a statewide nondiscrimination law received a committee hearing for the first time before being shelved, something that satisfied sponsoring Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, for now.
In addition to passing bills, lawmakers killed a few. One would have made carrying graffiti tools such spray paint cans a misdemeanor offense. Another would have provided a tax credit to cable TV subscribers who pay local franchise fees.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, abandoned his attempt to have the Legislature define when life begins in his so-called personhood bill.
Waddoups said he talked to Osmond about giving that up because he already has enough to do with his education reform measure. The freshman senator agreed and even apologized to his peers for the distraction it might have caused.
The House shouted down Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's attempt to run a bill to tweak the state's E-Verify law aimed at sanctioning businesses that hire undocumented workers. But the Orem Republican found a colleague willing to give him an open bill file to keep the measure alive.
So, though many legislators have expressed a desire to let last year's package of illegal immigration bills stand, it could become an issue in the coming weeks.
Open bill files in the House number 511, while the Senate has 278. Many in both houses, though, are "boxcars," meaning they have yet to have language added to them and might not before the session ends March 8. There are also 75 resolutions between the two bodies.
Republican leaders expect legislators to feel a sense of urgency in the coming weeks to get their bills moving through the process.
"The pace will pick up dramatically," said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden. "We'll be far from bored."
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