Homelessness, jail recidivism highlight S.L. County's legislative agenda
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Helping Utah's most needy is Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams' top priority for the 2016 legislative session.
But it isn't the only regional issue McAdams said he plans to ask the state to help solve.
The mayor said it's part of a bigger landscape of issues facing Salt Lake County — one where homelessness, criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion “overlap.”
In addition to making headway on some of Salt Lake County's most difficult social issues, McAdams is also hoping legislators will identify funding for local roads — a budget shortfall that persists after Salt Lake County voters slammed the door on Proposition 1 last fall.
It's a challenging agenda, the mayor said, but he's optimistic lawmakers have a "common interest in seeing Utah's capital county be successful."
"Salt Lake County represents 40 percent of the state of Utah," McAdams said. "So I think the Legislature recognizes that a healthy and vibrant Salt Lake County is important to the entire state of Utah."
Here's a breakdown of McAdams' legislative agenda and its likelihood of support at the Capitol in the coming months:
In partnership with Salt Lake City, the county is requesting $27 million from the Utah Legislature to fund new homeless shelters and services.
Of the request, $20 million would be one-time funding for two new shelters, and the other $7 million would be ongoing funding for prevention programs, services, operation and maintenance.
In addition, McAdams said the county is proposing legislation to combat its 43,000-unit shortage of affordable housing.
Specifics of that bill have not yet been unveiled, the mayor said, but will entail requesting that the Legislature create a "metro housing authority trust fund" to allow communities to donate or pool tax increment funds they are required by the state to set aside for affordable housing projects.
"The fund could then be used throughout the metro area to try to meet some of the affordable housing gaps," McAdams said.
But the mayor's $27 million request comes in a year when other expensive issues such as education and water conservation will be competing for state dollars, according to Gov. Gary Herbert’s 2016 budget proposal.
After Herbert proposed $6 million for homeless shelter funding, McAdams urged stakeholders to rally together for legislative support, but he also recognizes it may take several years to get the full amount.
"The legislative process is a give-and-take, and I know it's probably not going to be everything I want today," McAdams said. "But I have optimism that (lawmakers) will recognize the hard work that has been put in at the local level to identify solutions."
House Minority Leader Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said legislators are sympathetic to the need of Utah’s homeless, but because the state’s general fund budget is “basically flat,” lawmakers are going to have to “reprioritize” funds from other programs or “think outside of the box.”
"There's not $27 million just lying around," Dunnigan said. "But that doesn't mean we won't do anything."
To address homelessness, lawmakers will likely seek a solution where it acts as a "piece" of criminal justice reform and health care, he said.
"I think we're going to see these pieces have to work together," Dunnigan said. "You don't just treat homelessness in a silo by itself, and you don't treat justice reinvestment by itself, and you don't treat health care by itself. They all interplay, and I'm hopeful we can get the right pieces of that puzzle and at least start doing something."
While addressing homelessness has been a big focus of Salt Lake County leaders over the past year, so has reducing jail recidivism to seal the criminal justice system's "revolving door."
So the mayor said he will also be urging lawmakers to consider what he says is a major missing piece to solving homelessness and jail recidivism.
“Some form of Medicaid expansion is going to be critical,” the mayor said. “It’s the treatment piece to criminal justice reform.”
After lawmakers failed to approve Medicaid expansion plans last year, the mayor said he’s “pessimistic” that full Medicaid expansion will happen, but he will be urging lawmakers to find a solution for the roughly 63,000 Utahns who have no coverage without it.
“Coordinating on a state level on homelessness, criminal justice and a philosophical shift to treatment instead of incarceration is important,” McAdams said. “But we’ve only gone halfway.”
That's because last year, the Utah Legislature approved a criminal justice reform bill, HB348, to overhaul parts of the criminal justice system by dropping some of Utah’s drug offense penalties from felonies to misdemeanors. The bill also included measures to reduce jail recidivism by enhancing treatment for offenders suffering from mental illness or substance abuse.
The mayor said Salt Lake County will be asking the state to continue ongoing funds to sustain those programs — $4.5 million for mental health and substance abuse treatment, and $2.5 million for screening and risk assessment.
But by passing HB348 without expanding Medicaid, the Legislature has only made matters worse, the mayor said, because it shifted state prisoners to county jails while leaving many mental health and substance abuse programs unfunded.
McAdams said that’s because the criminal justice reform bill was vetted with the notion that Medicaid expansion would help offset health-related expenses.
“Taking a half step does not get us to our goal,” he said. “It leaves us worse off. We get people out of the prison, but we send them to the streets without treatment, so we’re going to see an uptick in crime and homelessness. I’m not picky about what we do, but we’ve got to do something.”
Herbert has already proposed $10 million to go toward some sort of Medicaid expansion plan, but McAdams said that’s nowhere near the $450 million full expansion would provide.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be done until we’ve found a way for people to secure health care coverage of some type, but any little bit helps,” the mayor said. “The $10 million is a start, but whatever else we can do is important.”
However, Dunnigan said some of his colleagues "are not very excited" about working on Medicaid expansion again.
"I think there is an appetite by some; there's no appetite by others," he said. "Others want to take a breather on Medicaid, but I think there are a reasonable number that want to do something for those who are in extreme poverty.
"I think there's an opportunity to do something," Dunnigan added. "But it may be modest, because we still have to figure out how it all fits together."
After Salt Lake County voters rejected Proposition 1 — a ballot measure that would have increased sales taxes by a penny for every $4 spent to fund local transportation projects — McAdams said he's still looking for a path forward to address the county's struggles to maintain local roads.
"We haven't come to a decision yet, but there are conversations about whether we would revise the Proposition 1 proposal to something that might be more supported by the public," the mayor said.
While Salt Lake County currently spends about $2 million a year on road maintenance, it needs an estimated $2 million to $4 million more a year to maintain its roads effectively, according to county staff.
The county will be receiving an additional $850,000 after the Legislature passed the 5-cent gas tax increase last year, but McAdams said it's still falling behind.
"We're going to see our roads fall into disrepair if we aren't able to find ways to fund them," the mayor said. "We either need to revise our expectations or identify a different way to fund it."
Dunnigan said lawmakers will consider a proposal once it's brought forward, but it will "need to be something different than what voters voted down."
"I think there's a very low or little appetite for tax increases this year," he said.
Although McAdams said "doing nothing is an option," he will continue to work with other mayors in Salt Lake County to find a solution.
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