The 2014 session of the Utah Legislature may be remembered most for what lawmakers didn’t do. In some cases, inaction was good. In others, it meant missing an opportunity to accomplish something of importance.
Among the good examples of inaction was the defeat of efforts to change Utah’s liquor laws. HB285 would have allowed restaurants to remove partitions that block patrons from viewing alcoholic beverages being mixed and poured. The partition requirement is important to help differentiate restaurants, which must serve the general public, and bars. The partition is only one a variety of measures – including specific times for the sale of alcohol, and requirements that the ratio of restaurant revenues not exceed 70 percent food-30 percent alcohol, and that patrons manifest an intent to dine – that together constitute a balanced framework for the sale of alcohol in the state. Lawmakers were wise to resist lobbying efforts and maintain our current system.
The same cannot be said for clean air fuel standards. Utah’s air quality, particularly during stagnant winter inversions, was a main topic of concern heading into the session. Lawmakers allocated more money to the Division of Air Quality, increased tax credits for electric vehicles and hybrids and made it easier to encourage cleaner transportation.
However, they failed to pass HJR23, a joint resolution supporting Gov. Gary Herbert’s efforts to establish tough new Tier 3 standards immediately, rather than waiting for the EPA to impose them in 2017. They also failed to pass HB121, which would have allowed the state to impose tougher emission standards than the EPA.
Taken together, these defeats were a lost opportunity to harness the best tools lawmakers had available to make inversion days less dangerous to health. No other measure under consideration, whether increasing enforcement budgets or limiting wood burning stoves and fireplaces, would come as close to reducing fine particulate pollution as tough new auto emission standards, which are coming to the state eventually, anyway.
Nor should lawmakers be proud of how they failed to pass SB251, which would have given a hearty legislative endorsement to Herbert’s efforts to negotiate a unique Utah solution to the federal government’s plans for expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The House’s failure to clear the Senate-passed SB251 may also weaken Herbert’s case as he seeks flexibility from the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington.
A Utah-specific plan to expand the medical safety net would provide equity for the poor and enable more of Utah’s Affordable Care Act tax dollars to remain in Utah. Utahns should hope the governor still succeeds in obtaining an exemption for the plan. Without it, too many poor adults in the state would find themselves without any health care support, which ultimately affects the state in many other ways.
Lawmakers should feel pleased with the way they chose to increase funding for public and higher education, including providing equity funding for the state’s open-enrollment universities.
Being a citizen lawmaker is no easy task. Despite the mixed results this session, Utahns should be thankful to those who serve, putting a tremendous amount of effort into a 45-day session. Utah’s overall record of strong fiscal management and enviable living standard is a testament to this dedicated service.