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.
Democrats say the ongoing effort to push back against the federal government could harm the state. Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said he understands his GOP colleagues' passion, "but we have a responsibility to be smart with the limited resources we have."
Overall, though, Democrats deemed the session a success, particularly in education. Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, also noted restrictions on teens going to tanning salons, tax breaks for military families and a proposed statewide nondiscrimination law getting a committee hearing for the first time in five years as accomplishments.
"We think we have fared very well this session," he said.
The Legislature passed a $13 billion budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2013. About $5 billion comes from Utah tax collections; $3.5 billion from federal sources and $4.5 billion from dedicated credits, restricted accounts and transfers. It did not include a tax increase or additional bonding. Legislators did lower the unemployment insurance tax rate 2 percent as Herbert requested, saving money for about 85,000 Utah businesses.
Though lawmakers won't describe the state as flush, they had an additional $440 million in tax revenue to spend this session, including $22 million from the national mortgage fraud settlement. A portion of that is earmarked for mortgage fraud investigators, homeless shelters and low-income housing. Lawmakers also socked away $11 million in the Rainy Day Fund.
The extra money funded a 1.15 percent increase for public education, which will cover an anticipated 12,500 new students this fall and a teacher salary increase if local districts choose to do that. Higher education also received a 1 percent increase. State employees received a 1 percent cost-of-living increase in addition to having increases in their retirement fund covered.
"The fact of the matter is we spent a lot of money this year," Jenkins said. "When it's all said and done, we're one fortunate state."
The session might also be remembered for what lawmakers didn't do. Despite a hue and cry from tea partyers to repeal 2011's HB116, which sets up a guest worker program for undocumented immigrants, the Legislature had no appetite for immigration bills. That won't be the case in 2013, the year HB116 is set to take effect.
"I think you will some activity around immigration definitely in the next session," Lockhart said.
This year, though, legislative leaders said most of the bills passed during the 2011 legislative session wouldn't take effect until 2013, so there was no hurry to make changes. Meanwhile, a federal court challenge of Utah's immigration enforcement law, HB497, is on hold until the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of Arizona's enforcement law.
The Utah Legislature passed one immigration bill this session, legislation that will regulate nonattorney immigration consultants who assist people in filling out immigration documents, offer translation and other services.
A bill to repeal the state law that authorizes the issuance of driver privilege cards was approved by a Senate committee but died in the Senate Rules Committee.
Herbert expressed disappointment about the Legislature not addressing a bill to put some teeth into the state's E-Verify law. "We need to address it in the next session," he said.
Lawmakers did not hear a measure that would have suspended business licenses for companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers.
Preserving the family was another central theme of business handled by state lawmakers during the 2012 session.
Legislators passed bills intended to make it tougher to remove children from kinship placements and to give unmarried expectant mothers a voluntary means to notify the fathers before children are placed for adoption.
A bill to encourage premarital counseling died, as did another that would have required a divorce orientation before a party could file a petition to dissolve a marriage. However, the Legislature passed a bill to restore a 90-day waiting period before any divorce hearing could be conducted once a petition is filed.
Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said many of the issues to come before the committee are indicative of larger societal problems that affect individuals' lives and impact government coffers.
"If we can preserve the family better, we could get rid of so many of our problems," he said.
Another bill passed by lawmakers will require people who apply for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits to complete a questionnaire regarding substance abuse. If evaluators determine further assistance is needed, recipients would undergo drug screens and drug treatment if needed.
Abortion, sex ed, other issues
In a legislative session dominated by education issues and states' rights matters, a few other issues captured significant public attention.
Lawmakers adopted the nation's longest waiting period between initial consultation and undergoing an abortion: 72 hours. The waiting period was 24 hours.
Women can undergo a consultation anywhere in the state.
Critics have argued the change places an undue burden on women. A similar law passed by the South Dakota Legislature was enjoined by a federal court.
Sex education in public schools was hotly debated, including a polite request from Rep. Jen Seelig, D-Salt Lake, to Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, to define erotic behavior on the House floor. The Legislature ultimately adopted a policy of teaching abstinence-only or nothing in Utah schools.
The House also derailed a bill that would have let school districts talk about human sexuality with parents at an annual seminar.
Lawmakers said they received the most email over a measure to prohibit photography and recording sound at private agricultural operations without permission of the owner or operator.
Even TV and film actress Katherine Heigl lobbied lawmakers against the so-called Ag-Gag measure, which lawmakers passed. The bill also would penalize people who obtain employment on farms, ranches or processing plant under false pretenses.
Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, said he received email on the issue from people from "California to Paris."
A bill to criminalize the possession of graffiti tools, meanwhile, was killed earlier in the session. But debate over the measure prompted the group Anonymous to hack the website of the Salt Lake City Police Department in protest of the graffiti paraphernalia legislation, SB107.
The debate over including e-cigarettes and hookah pipes under the state's Clean Air Act ended with a ban of their use in indoor public places. However, the law exempts hookah bars and e-cigarette shops from the ban for five years, when the exemption will sunset.
Drivers will have a few less things to worry about. Car inspections will not be as frequent for newer models, railroad crossing are to be made safer and DUI checkpoints are now prohibited. Lawmakers say the periodic roadblocks are unconstitutional, while critics say doing away with them leaves more drunken drivers on the road.
After 24 accidents among motor vehicles and TRAX trains and two crashes with FrontRunner trains in 2011, lawmakers passed a law clarifying and strengthening laws regarding railroad crossings.
Meanwhile, a bill to clarify the state's open carry law will be addressed during the Legislature's interim because law enforcement and gun rights organizations could not come to agreement.
Drivers, however, could be cited for texting while driving even if they don't send the message. Legislators closed what law enforcement found was a loophole in the no-texting-while-driving law passed last year.
State lawmakers took aim at local governments in several areas, including electronic billboard regulations, automobile idling ordinances, "good landlord" programs and creating historical districts.
Local officials, particularly in Salt Lake City, complained of meddling, but legislators often reminded them cities and counties are political subdivisions of the state and therefore "subservient" to it. Compromises were worked out in a couple of those measures to allow municipalities to maintain some control.
People seeking to incorporate cities will have a steeper challenge under a bill passed Thursday evening. The legislation allows incorporators to work jointly with a county to select a consultant to conduct a feasibility study, but it increases the requirements for collecting signatures for putting the matter to a vote of residents.
Meanwhile, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, took on what he describes as "the most divisive" issue of the 2011 Legislative session: an attempt to drastically alter the state Government Records Access and Management Act.
Members of the public, media and special interest groups rose up in opposition, resulting in the bill's repeal. Gov. Gary Herbert and Republican legislative leaders appointed a working group to discuss ways to improve the act.
Their work helped shape HB177, which requires the development of an online training course to be completed yearly by government records officers. It also grants rulemaking authority to the Division of Archives and Records Service and creates the position of ombudsman.
It also establishes, Bramble said, "that what is private should be private and that which is public should be made available to the public."
The end result, he said, was a stronger, more transparent statute.8 comments on this story
In a touching moment on the Senate floor, President Waddoups' daughter Wendi recognized her father's long service to the state of Utah, presenting him a ceramic beehive filled with Bit-O-Honey candy and personal notes from family members, including his grandchildren.
Throughout the legislative session, Waddoups has presented honey bee lapel pins to honor Senate guests and dignitaries.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, took a moment to recognize Waddoups as well.
"You've sat in that chair for four years. You replaced me. You did more than that. You added value to that chair."