Utah lawmakers still have a lot of pieces to put together before adjourning

Published: Thursday, March 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers today will wrap up bits and pieces of a 45-day legislative session scheduled to end by midnight.

 The item on top of Senate President Michael Waddoups' list of priorities: "The budget."

"We're close. We really are," the Taylorsville Republican said.

Then? "Let the bills flow."

The House and Senate approved bills this week that make up the bulk of the nearly $13 billion state budget, including a 1.15 percent increase for public education and a 1 percent increase of higher education. In addition, Republican leadership in both bodies late Wednesday agreed to a 1 percent cost-living-increase for state employees.

They also have a number of measures that need funding should they be enacted.

"There's not a lot of money left and the list is long," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.

Allocating tax dollars aren't the only things lawmakers have to do in the homestretch. Some significant policy matters remain as well.

"There's quite a bit more debate to go on," Lockhart said.

Proposals to overhaul the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control; prohibit police from citing those openly carrying a gun with disorderly conduct; ban hookah pipes and e-cigarettes in public places; increase the waiting period for abortions to 72 hours; and reduce required safety inspections for newer model cars.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate were at odds Wednesday over funding for an autism intervention program and a bonding bill for state road projects. They have met several times the past three days to iron out their differences.

The Senate has shown little interest in passing a two-year pilot program to help young autistic children with its $6 million price tag. HB272 has already passed the House and Lockhart said the measure is a priority.

The Senate is also holding a bill to bond $100 million in road projects statewide that were previously authorized.

Lockhart said House leaders are concerned that once the I-15 reconstruction is done in Utah County there will be a precipitous drop in road work, meaning a loss of jobs.

"We're trying to manage the cliff, if you will," she said.

Meantime, the House is not moving a bill to provide $3 million to West Valley City and $1.1 million to West Jordan for highway improvements.

Another of the issues lawmakers were weighing was funding for computer-adaptive and online testing in Utah schools. The bill has a fiscal note of $20 million, although some legislative leaders questioned if the full amount would be needed the first year. Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget contemplated $12 million for the initiative. GOP leaders decided late Wednesday to provide $6.7 million.

At the same time, lawmakers were considering bills that could generate revenue or enhance sales tax collections from online sales.

HB384, which is up for final passage in the Utah Senate, could capture nearly $6 million in sales tax revenue that is due to the state. It would require online businesses out-of-state businesses that have "affiliates" in Utah that drive the dot-com's sales to remit sales tax to the state.

"This isn't a new tax," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, Senate sponsor of the bill. "This is a way to administer sale tax laws on the books."

Senate Budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, who has served in the Legislature since 1984, took matters in stride, explaining that even in years of plenty, the prioritization process is challenging.

But at the end of the day, there is merit to socking taxpayer money away, too.

"Guess what? The world does not end if we don't spend all our money," Hillyard said.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, marjorie@desnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

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