At the beginning of the Utah Legislature 2013 session, The Deseret News pledged to focus its legislative coverage on five key issues that matter to Utah families: early childhood education, college and career readiness, economic development, health care and well-being, and intergenerational poverty. See what transpired in each of those areas during this year's legislative session.
SALT LAKE CITY — The 2013 Legislature was summed up as calm and even boring as lawmakers tried to stay away from controversy and put their focus on education and other issues important to Utah families.
"We've done great things," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, including providing schools with the largest budget increase in years. "Those are things we're really proud of," Lockhart said.
Legislators set up a commission to study poverty numbers, allocated money to identify problems in the health of young children, and pushed economic growth under the umbrella of education.
But even more telling may be what didn't happen during the annual 45-day session. Legislative leaders worked behind the scenes to temper the strong emotions surrounding gun rights and federal health care reform.
"This session, I think, has been pretty calm. There hasn't been a lot of drama," Gov. Gary Herbert said, stopping short of calling it completely under control. "One man's sensible approach is another man's craziness, so it's probably in the eyes of the beholder."
The governor has made it clear he's seriously considering vetoing the most controversial bill to surface this session, HB76, which allows Utahns to carry concealed weapons without permits. Opposition to the bill is already pouring into Herbert's office.
However, the governor doesn't have to deal with another high-profile bill intended to stop the enforcement of federal gun laws in Utah. After being held up in the House for much of the session, Senate leaders chose not to let the bill come forward for a vote.
Also quashed was a last-minute attempt to take away the governor's ability to accept the Medicaid expansion offered by the federal government. Herbert has said he may call a special session of the Legislature later this year to deal with the issue that could have the greatest impact on family health.
Lockhart acknowledged some might see the 2013 session as uneventful because those and other potential divisive issues were, in the end, overshadowed by the work needed to wrap up the nearly $13 billion budget earlier than usual.
"For what we've been advocating for up here, we've had a real good year, a surprisingly good year," Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, said. She cited the swift demise of proposals to restore the sales tax on food and implement a tax on water bills, both detrimental to low-income Utahns.
She said while the Legislature's lack of interest in tax increases this session benefited the state's less fortunate, that likely wasn't the primary motivation of lawmakers.
"It's probably a happy byproduct. I would like to think they have more compassion, but it's hard to tell," Hilton said, particularly because several sales tax exemptions for businesses made their way through the session with little attention.
SB84, for example, gives Utah hotels a tax break on the shampoos and other products they buy for guests' rooms that will add up to some $2.5 million annually in lost revenue to state and local governments.
"Legislators say out of one side of their mouths that they need to broaden the tax base and find more money for education," Hilton said, yet vote for bills that end up doing neither.
"It's been a very yin and yang session," she said. "You never know which side they're on."
Before the session started, there was talk that this might be the year lawmakers would be willing to at least start looking at ways to bring in more money for schools, likely an income tax increase because the Utah Constitution sets aside income taxes for education.
Poll after poll has found that a majority of Utahns are willing to pay higher taxes to improve public education. And 2013 is not an election year, a key consideration when House members are up for re-election every two years, and state senators every four.
"Do we think next year, in an election year, they're going to be more willing to talk about that? Well, I've got my fingers crossed," said Utah Education Association government relations director Kory Holdaway, a former GOP lawmaker from Taylorsville.
Holdaway said he was expecting to see more momentum this year surrounding taxes. Instead, Democrat-sponsored bills to raise the marginal income tax rate on Utahns making at least $250,000 and the severance tax on oil and gas extractions failed in committee.
The sponsor of those bills, Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, expressed his frustration over their quick defeat.
"Cowardly. Cowardly is what I think we are as legislators at times," King said at the hearing, accusing lawmakers of pandering "to the belief that our constituents are going to punish us if we vote for any tax increase. … We have no backbone on this issue."
Holdaway said in lawmakers' efforts to "keep a lid" on volatile issues this session, they avoided once against confronting the need to look at new revenues.
"At some point, this body needs to respect what their constituents are demanding with regard to increasing the pot for education," he said.
Lockhart said the GOP majority in the House wasn't ready to talk tax hikes this session but may be ready for a longer-term examination.
"We made it pretty clear from the House's perspective that we weren't interested in any tax increase. I think that tended to help the conversation die down a little bit," she said.
But an education task force set up this session and led by the speaker and the Senate president is charged with looking specifically at funding.
"I hope that we will spend some significant amount of time looking at the income tax and the constitutional protection of the income tax and looking at that revenue stream," as well as local property taxes, Lockhart said.
She said the commission on education funding will be treated the same as a recent task force that looked at coming up with money for building roads.
"We made it very clear to the members of that task force that nothing was off the table, that we were unafraid to talk about anything," Lockhart said. "Let's talk about the issues. Let's be unafraid. Let's put it all out there and see what rises to the top and doesn't."
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