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Legislative leaders skip over request for school safety audit

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19 2012 7:30 p.m. MST

People talk outside the Utah House of Representatives, March 8, 2012. Legislative leaders Wednesday passed on advancing a lawmaker's request for an audit report on the best methods schools around the country are using to keep children safe.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Legislative leaders Wednesday passed on advancing a lawmaker's request for an audit report on the best methods schools around the country are using to keep children safe.

Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, said he put in the request for an audit of “best practices” for school security Tuesday, just days after the deadly shootings at a Connecticut elementary school.

“I think the timing is obvious,” McCay said, expressing surprise that the Legislative Audit Subcommittee left his request off the list of approved audits to be conducted by the Legislative Auditor General's Office.

McCay said while the “verdict is still out” in Washington on whether more federal gun control is needed, Utah lawmakers can agree on the need to look at improving school security. He had hoped to have the audit available during the 2013 Legislature that starts in late January.

“I have to think, at the end of the day, our leaders are doing the right thing for Utah students,” McCay said of the decision by the subcommittee, made up of legislative leadership from both parties.

Outgoing Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, made the motion to add audits on USTAR, a higher education science, technology and research initiative; and campus bookstore competition with private enterprise to the auditor general's workload.

The motion was approved unanimously. There was no discussion about McCay's request.

Waddoups, who did not run for re-election and is retiring from the Senate, said after the meeting it was too soon after the Friday shootings to start looking at school security.

“The fact that it's so close on the heels of the tragedy, to me, makes it look like it will be reactionary and that we're trying to push forward an agenda that's already preconceived,” Waddoups said.

He said he expects the audit to be reconsidered by the incoming legislative leaders at a future subcommittee meeting.

“I think they will get that audit out, but it wouldn't have come before the end of the session,” Waddoups said, adding he based his decision on both public relations and “the peace of mind of the people involved.”

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said lawmakers “want to be very careful and methodical about how we address that issue.” She, too, said the work could wait.

Outgoing Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, who is also leaving the Legislature, said the request was so new that the subcommittee really didn't have time to review it.

“I think it's a good audit. I think it probably deserves consideration,” Romero said. But some of the information may end up being gathered by other sources, he said.

Those could include Gov. Gary Herbert's office, which announced earlier this week school security would be evaluated with the help of the attorney general and state superintendent.

Information on what schools outside Utah are doing to secure students may well fall under the scope of that evaluation. Herbert said in a statement Monday “it is completely appropriate to assess school safety and security protocols.”

While House Republicans had what was described as an emotional discussion about responding to the shooting deaths during their all-day caucus Tuesday, the issue was not raised during the Senate GOP's caucus Wednesday.

“We needed to let the dust settle and get the facts of what happened there,” said Senate President-elect Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.

Unlike the House, the Senate is planning to hold a second pre-session caucus next month to focus on policy issues. Wednesday, they spent the day behind closed doors discussing budget issues.

The Senate Republicans agreed with the governor's efforts to get the federal government to allow the state to expand its current health insurance exchange program to comply with the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

House and Senate GOP leaders had earlier sent a letter to Herbert saying they wanted the state to have no part in the health insurance exchange required under the new federal law.

But the Senate majority caucus did not take a position on a proposal to restore the sales tax on food, made by Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem.

Valentine said there is too much uncertainty about the economy, especially the looming threat posed by the so-called “fiscal cliff” the nation faces if Congress and President Barack Obama can't agree on spending cuts and tax increases.

The House speaker has already publicly opposed restoring the sales tax on food, suggesting the measure might not make it out of the Senate.

Niederhauser said based on the discussion of the issue Wednesday, he believed there would be enough votes in the Senate to pass Valentine's proposal.

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