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Legislative forecast: Smoggy with gathering storms over guns, money, ethics

Published: Monday, Feb. 18 2013 10:40 p.m. MST

House GOP leaders said the legislation has surfaced as a reaction to President Barack Obama's gun-control proposals, including a ban on assault weapons, that followed the deadly school shootings in Connecticut.

"I think many of us hoped no one on either side of the issue would politicize" the tragedy, Hughes said. "I had hoped the issue of guns, pro-gun control or looking at Second Amendment rights, we would just leave alone."

But Hughes and Lockhart said the president's proposals have put lawmakers on the defensive. 

Receiving the most attention is a bill from freshman Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, HB114, intended to stop federal gun laws from being enforced in Utah. Greene's bill received cheers at a massive pro-gun rally at the Capitol before the session.

The governor weighed in on the issue last week, issuing what he said would be his guiding principles in deciding which gun control-related legislation he would allow to become law.

His principles included calling for lawmakers to find rational solutions. "I will not support message bills that inflame, rather than inform the discussion," Herbert warned. "Neither does it help to propose extreme measures that politicize or polarize the debate."

House leaders are attempting to temper the tenor of the debate by holding bills so they could be sent the same day to committees for hearings. But pro-gun advocates are planning to gather at the Capitol Friday and Saturday.

The budget

Fiscal unpredictability in Washington has thrown a wrench into the state budget process. How much additional money, if any, will be directed to public education as the governor recommended remains to be seen.

Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard said legislative leaders delayed new state revenue projections a week to Feb. 25. The Logan Republican said the uncertainty over spending cuts in Washington has made it more difficult to assemble the budget this year.

"They are some challenges this year in trying to figure out the revenue situation, so I understand their caution because they really don't know what's coming," said Stephen Kroes, executive director of the Utah Foundation, a public policy research group.

The Social Security tax increase is expected to slow spending growth this year. Nationally, retail sales were slower than expected in January.

"We're already looking at some change from December when the governor put out his recommendations. The economy is likely to be a little slower. The spending cuts looming could affect Utah too," Kroes said.

House Budget Chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville, said lawmakers are committed to ending the session on March 14 with a balanced budget. If the federal budget is cut after the session ends, Brown said there likely will be a special session.

The later-than-usual revenue projections will make for a "pressure-packed" end to the session, Brown said. "We're going to go down to the wire. There will be probably be as much ugliness as we've seen in a while."

Lawmakers have already passed a base budget that reflects last year's spending levels. Now the fight is over how to allocate whatever new revenues are available. Brown said there's already a lot of "pork" being proposed.

"That's the piggy part of the budget," he said. "Everybody wants some."

Herbert built is proposed budget to include $300 million in revenue growth for the budget year that begins July 1, most of which he earmarked for public and higher education initiatives.

Ethics

While Swallow's alleged involvement in a bribery scandal is whispered about in the hallways, GOP leaders clearly aren’t comfortable talking about his situation publicly.

The Legislature hasn't had to take an official action regarding the attorney general, but leaders did take a refresher on impeachment proceedings before convening Jan. 28.

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