Utah's annual 45-day session of self-government is a remarkable testament to the idea of citizen lawmaking. One of only a handful of states that maintains a part-time Legislature with minimal full-time staff, Utah remains among the best-managed states in the nation with tax and regulatory laws that make the state among the most attractive for economic development.
The Legislature also has a consistent record of family friendly decisions, something of paramount importance to a majority of people in the state.
This must be the backdrop for any assessment of the 2013 session that ended Thursday night. With that said, the session contained a mix of successes, along with actions that raise concerns.
Lawmakers took great pains to provide public education with the funding it needs to handle growth, but state leaders have yet to come up with the type of radical education reform it will need to maximize resources and build a world-class school system.
We saw little from the session to suggest the state will meet the widely embraced goal of having two-thirds of adults holding a postsecondary degree or certification by 2020.
Lawmakers punted on the decision whether to expand Medicaid in order to qualify for federal funding made available by the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. While no deadline exists, the state is one of only five yet to decide whether to do this. Deliberation can be a virtue. But the state needs to look carefully at how to help the segment of the state's needy population that is not served by the current system.
Lawmakers took the first step toward relocating the Utah State Prison from Draper, setting up a board that will accept requests for proposals.
Prison relocation is fraught with potential problems, from excessive taxpayer costs to potential windfalls to developers. Particularly, we hope those in charge of this decision will take into account the tremendous volunteer infrastructure made available by having the prison near population centers — a unique resource that saves considerable taxpayer dollars while helping inmates reintegrate into society.
If the prison needs to be built, it should be to where it can continue to take advantage of this resource.
Lawmakers removed a prohibition on privatizing prison services, which ought to raise concerns among all Utahns. Public safety and the rehabilitation of offenders may be the most important of government duties. They do not naturally lend themselves to profit motives.
Finally, we were disappointed in the message bill lawmakers chose to pass concerning gun rights. As Gov. Gary Herbert noted, these were unnecessary in a state that has a proud record of support for the Second Amendment. The so-called "constitutional carry" bill, allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit, was a step in the wrong direction. Those who carry concealed weapons need more training, not less.
We were happy, however, that lawmakers chose not to pass a bill that would have made it illegal to enforce federal gun laws in the state.
Education will forever be a struggle between burgeoning needs and tight resources, so long as the state continues its current public-school model. Lawmakers this year found a way to fund enrollment growth and a 2 percent increase in the weighted-pupil unit. They approved ongoing funding for extended-day kindergarten as an optional program, as well as for a dual language immersion program. These are important for dealing with Utah's growing and changing demographics.
However, they rejected a reasonable proposal by Sen. Arron Osmond, R-South Jordan, to involve the private sector in funding preschool for at-risk students. This innovative proposal would have helped the state's most vulnerable children get the kind of push they need to increase their chances of success in the education system — a success necessary for them to become contributing adults and to, in many cases, end a poverty cycle that creates a host of societal costs.
The proposal included financial rewards to the programs that could demonstrate success. We hope Osmond continues to press this idea and to convince others of its importance.
The true legacy of the 2013 session won't be known for years. However, the accumulative effect of several fiscally responsible sessions has been the great key to Utah's ability to weather difficult times. For Utah families and businesses, this makes up for a lot of other shortcomings, and it has created an atmosphere that makes the state a great home.
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