Utah Legislature's session quiet as final days near
Some lawmakers expect lurking controversies
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A relatively quiet legislative session is set to wrap up this week with — so far — few of the rancorous, heated debates and protests that marked previous years as legislators have focused on largely less-contentious issues, but, they say, stayed tuned.
"Pay attention," Democratic Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero said. "We're moving into the home stretch, and we will see some controversial bills pushed forward."
Chief among those lurking controversies are multiple laws that legislative attorneys have warned are unconstitutional, including bills seeking to seize federal land, extend the waiting period for abortions and require some welfare recipients to be tested for drugs.
Should the Legislature pass any one of these, the state would almost certainly face yet another lawsuit, likely multiple, adding to about a dozen actions already pending in federal court from bills passed during last year's session over immigration and liquor regulations, among others.
South Dakota, for example, is embroiled in its own federal lawsuit over passage of a bill last year that is identical to the one Utah is considering, aimed at extending the required waiting period for abortions from 24 to 72 hours.
Utah legislators also are set to consider proposed abstinence-only sex education programs for schools and a prohibition on secretly filming on private farms without the owner's permission, a measure opposed by animal rights activists.
Lawmakers will also have to finish work on the $13 billion budget, although legislative leaders said the only remaining disputes are minor, a reflection of the mood throughout the entire session.
Immigration, an issue that dominated 2011, was barely mentioned this year because legislators generally agreed to allow the changes passed last year to resolve themselves in the courts, where the state is currently battling a federal lawsuit.
Arizona, too, has had its similar law put on hold pending further action in the courts.
The Legislature is making some significant changes to the state's liquor laws this year, but they revolve around management of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and have almost no immediate impact on drinkers or the hospitality industry, which also has sued the state over bills passed last year, including one that banned daily drink specials.
Gun bills, another topic that often captures attention in Utah, were also relatively innocuous this year. The one bill that sparked heated debate simply reinforced current law that a person can't be charged with disorderly conduct just for openly carrying a gun, but would have to also be disruptive or threatening.
It's not that legislators weren't busy. There were just as many bill files opened this year as in previous years, and lawmakers have already had to stay late on several occasions to avoid being overrun by the workload.
They've just largely so far avoided the most contentious issues that last year prompted three separate special sessions.
"There doesn't seem to be a lot of controversy," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who described it as a "calm" session. "We have had some great debates, but then we've moved on to the next issue."
Even the partisan rancor that can creep into statehouse politics— especially during an election year — has been noticeably subdued. Democrats successfully passed multiple initiatives, a noteworthy accomplishment in a Legislature where Republicans have a two-thirds majority in both chambers.
"Busy but boring," said House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City. "There's been an aversion to bring out some of the more controversial issues, especially immigration. We felt like we did a lot of heavy-lifting last year, and there wasn't a desire to revisit it."
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