Quantcast

Utah Legislature adjourns after closing budget gap, passing ethics reforms

Legislators fill budget gap, hike tobacco tax

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 1:08 p.m. MDT

A tour group moves through the Capitol rotunda during the last day of the 2010 Legislature Thursday. (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News) A tour group moves through the Capitol rotunda during the last day of the 2010 Legislature Thursday. (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Considering what they faced 45 days ago when the 2010 Legislature began, most legislators, lobbyists and special interest advocates were smiling Thursday night after the 104 part-time lawmakers adjourned.

"This was a positive experience and the citizens were well served," said Gov. Gary Herbert, who has seen a number of legislatures over the years, but this was his first, as he put it, "in the No. 1 chair."

The main achievement: Closing a $700 million budget gap while only spending about half the state's Rainy Day Fund, leaving around $210 million, and raising the tobacco tax by $1 a pack starting May 1.

While some state agencies will be taking more than a 20 percent cut over two years, and there was plenty of pain passed around, Herbert and legislators are pleased that public and higher education got the lion's share of tax dollars — and the lowest budget reductions.

Sen. Howard A. Stephenson of Draper lifts his grandson Holden Stephenson from his desk Thursday as his other grandson Tate Stephenson draws. As the final legislative session in the Utah State Senate winds down, a relaxed mood ensues as legislators? families visit the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Sen. Howard A. Stephenson of Draper lifts his grandson Holden Stephenson from his desk Thursday as his other grandson Tate Stephenson draws. As the final legislative session in the Utah State Senate winds down, a relaxed mood ensues as legislators? families visit the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Public schools will see only a $10 million decrease in funding (out of a budget of more than $1 billion).

"While the public may not see or realize this, we took $293 million that was one-time money funding public education and replaced it with $293 million in ongoing tax revenue," said House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara.

That is huge, the speaker said, because it means the 2011 Legislature will not have to raid one-time cash surplus accounts again to make public schools whole, or face another massive budget cut for teachers and students.

Utah colleges and universities will see about a 5 percent cut.

Still, because 11,000 new students in grades K-12 won't be funded next fall, in reality public schools will see about 5 percent less money than they normally would have received.

As the final night of the legislative session nears its end Thursday, an impromptu meeting in the hallway of the House of Representatives includes chief deputy of the Utah Senate Rick Cantrell, left, Rep. Greg Hughes and Rep. Jackie Biskupski. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) As the final night of the legislative session nears its end Thursday, an impromptu meeting in the hallway of the House of Representatives includes chief deputy of the Utah Senate Rick Cantrell, left, Rep. Greg Hughes and Rep. Jackie Biskupski. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

And the individual state universities will likely increase tuition between 10 percent and 15 percent.

Lawmakers also dealt with a $6.5 billion drop in the state's retirement fund, keeping all current employees' pensions intact, but reducing pensions and setting up optional 401ks for future state employees, teachers and college workers.

Lawmakers passed a 12-bill ethics reform package, seen by many as the greatest strides in this area since statehood.

They adopted a new law clarifying where fishermen and hikers can go on streams running through private lands, although they will study it through 2010 before it takes effect.

In a pre-election Legislature that sees the governor and all 75 House members and half of the 29-member Senate up for re-election this year, it was also a bipartisan session.

Rep. Michael E. Noel waits for the final legislative session in the Utah House of Representatives to reconvene at the Capitol Thursday. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Rep. Michael E. Noel waits for the final legislative session in the Utah House of Representatives to reconvene at the Capitol Thursday. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

"I can't remember a time where (Democrats) were treated as fairly by Republican leaders, and we appreciated that," said House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake.

Democrats may have wanted to spend a bit more on public and higher education and human services.

Conservative GOP lawmakers may have opposed the cigarette tax hike and wanted even deeper program cuts.

But as Herbert put it, "common sense is a hard thing to get around." And compromises were ultimately made. Herbert accepted the tobacco tax hike, when he didn't want any tax increase.

Conservatives agreed to hundreds of millions in general obligation and revenue bonds — which they originally opposed — and delaying around $115 million of road work to pay for construction of a number of college buildings.

Sen. Dan Liljenquist of Bountiful is joshed by colleagues after performing a musical number on the topic of the final legislative session to the tune of Sen. Dan Liljenquist of Bountiful is joshed by colleagues after performing a musical number on the topic of the final legislative session to the tune of "The Longest Time" Thursday at the Utah State Capitol. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Yes, it was a session of "message bills" — many of them bashing the federal government for burying Americans in debt, mandating health care and controlling Utahns' lives.

But legislators also took every federal dime they could find, including putting up around $1 million they had to wring from already stressed state budgets to match a $13 million federal grant to extend Internet/communication services to rural Utah.

Democrats got pretty sick of "federal bashing." But when rumors arose (later dismissed) in mid-session that President Barack Obama was considering creating new national monuments in Utah, both parties condemned that idea.

Lawmakers were good to gun owners, as they often are.

Legislators passed a law that says the federal government can't control firearms and ammunition made entirely in Utah, which could well land the state in federal court.

Actor Vincent D'Onofrio of New York City speaks to the Utah State Senate Thursday as a spokesman for the Utah Meth Cop Project. He is joined by project director Sandra Lucas, far left, and Erika Argueta, wife of Midvale police officer Jose Argueta, who died of a rare form of esophageal cancer. Erika Argueta believes that her husband's cancer was a result of exposure to meth labs while on duty. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Actor Vincent D'Onofrio of New York City speaks to the Utah State Senate Thursday as a spokesman for the Utah Meth Cop Project. He is joined by project director Sandra Lucas, far left, and Erika Argueta, wife of Midvale police officer Jose Argueta, who died of a rare form of esophageal cancer. Erika Argueta believes that her husband's cancer was a result of exposure to meth labs while on duty. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

And lawmakers also allowed concealed weapons permit holders to "flash" their handguns or warn someone verbally that they have a gun if they feel threatened by a possible attacker.

Legislative sessions should also be judged on what lawmakers considered, but didn't do.

There was a final-day fight Thursday over how much money charter schools (which are public schools) should be able to take from the district schools in their areas.

In the end, changes were not made, and as with many issues, that fight will continue.

Gay and lesbian Utahns had high hopes that after leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported a Salt Lake City ordinance outlawing discrimination by sexual preference in employment and housing, the Legislature may do likewise statewide.

Rep. Christine Johnson enjoys a laugh with daughter Olivia White during the final day of the Utah State Legislature on Thursday.  (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Rep. Christine Johnson enjoys a laugh with daughter Olivia White during the final day of the Utah State Legislature on Thursday. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Then conservatives threatened to pass a measure outlawing such local ordinances.

In the end, nothing was done on the issue.

"That was a significant victory for us," said Litvack — stopping the repeal of local gay anti-discrimination ordinances.

Also to the liking of Democrats, legislators didn't adopt a constitutional amendment outlawing affirmative action, even though the measure was clearly on the fast track for passage before leaders stopped it dead after a public outcry.

Finally, lawmakers didn't raise a general tax or reinstate the sales tax on food, as some wanted.

All of the hundreds of bills passed by the Legislature, along with the votes on those bills and recorded debates, can be found at le.state.ut.gov.

The Eagle Forum's Dalane England, center, puts a hand on the shoulder of Ed Smart, who reacts as votes are counted in favor of SB277, regarding the use of DNA evidence in police investigations, during the last day of the 2010 Legislature Thursday. (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News) The Eagle Forum's Dalane England, center, puts a hand on the shoulder of Ed Smart, who reacts as votes are counted in favor of SB277, regarding the use of DNA evidence in police investigations, during the last day of the 2010 Legislature Thursday. (T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News)

e-mail: bbjr@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company