Governor: 2012 had a spirit of cooperation and collaboration

Utah Legislature's quiet session punctuated with shouts of states' rights

Published: Friday, March 9 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — What state lawmakers hope will be loud messages to the federal government marked a mostly quiet 2012 session of the Utah Legislature that adjourned at midnight Thursday.

Measures aimed at taking control of public lands and assuming oversight of federal health care programs topped the list of actions legislators took the past 45 days. While Republicans hailed them as history-making achievements, Democrats condemned them as a waste of time and money.

Both parties agreed, for the most part, that public education, their top priority as well as Gov. Gary Herbert's top priority, made out very well. Lawmakers funded education beyond Gov. Gary Herbert's request, giving overwhelming bipartisan support to educator evaluation reform that paved the way for innovation.

"I think education has been the big winner this session," said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, described the session as "an excellent year with a lot of successes."

Herbert said he doesn't know if there's been a better spirit of cooperation and collaboration. He said he didn't get everything he wanted, "but 95 percent is pretty good."

The GOP-dominated House and Senate passed a package of bills demanding Washington cede control of millions of acres of federal lands in Utah and set deadlines for transferring them to the state. If the federal government doesn't respond, the state will prepare for a court showdown and set aside at least $3 million to do that.

The measures revive the Sagebrush Rebellion in which Western states have attempted to wrest ownership of those lands for more than three decades.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, believes it's a fight worth having. And this year, instead of saying " 'hey, federal government knock it off, we're going to take action now,' " she said.

Herbert, who stands firmly with the Legislature, said that action could include negotiation, legislation and litigation.

"All three of those approaches are part of our arsenal, and we need to use all of them," he said. "We need to have to have the ability as needs be to go to court."

Also on the states' rights front, lawmakers entered into a Healthcare Compact, under which the state would assume the funding for and oversight of programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, through federal block grants. The plan needs federal approval to take effect and was amended to have a two-year sunset.

GOP legislators say the state can manage the program more efficiently and provide better patient care.

The message has been sent, Waddoups said. Other states are following suit.

"Washington, enough is enough. You've got to do your work back there," he said of the message. "Let the states do what needs to be done at the states."

Falling unemployment figures and rising housing sales indicate "Utah is leading the nation again. Others are seeing we're doing good things here and Washington is what's holding us back," said Waddoups, who is retiring from the Legislature after 16 years in office.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said legislators "wonder all the time if we're wasting our time sending these message bills."

But he said members of Utah's congressional delegation tell them they appreciate statements that clarify elected officials' positions on issues such as public lands, health care reform and education. "They use in them their drive to try to get Washington under control," Jenkins said.

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