SALT LAKE CITY — Call it the year of child.
From funding a competitive grant program to provide after-school instruction for children experiencing intergenerational poverty to a bill that will enable children in foster care to more readily experience typical teenage activities, Utah lawmakers passed a number of bills to improve the lives of vulnerable children.
Lawmakers approved $3 million in grants for high-quality preschool and $1 million in ongoing money for a competitive grant program for after-school instruction in math and reading under SB43. The passage of SB57 ensures for the first time that health plans cover treatments for children with autism spectrum disorders, starting in 2016.
But lawmakers during the 2014 Legislature stopped short of a number of measures advocates say would help ensure the economic and physical well-being of children and families.
Lawmakers did not act on Medicaid expansion, nor did they address a proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage or increase the minimum wage paid restaurant servers.
A bill to extend a tax credit to qualifying working families passed in the House but stalled in the Senate.
"When you give parents a living wage so they only have to work one job instead of two or three, then they can spend more time at home being parents and helping their kids with homework. That's where we're going to get rid of intergenerational poverty," said Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities.
State lawmakers did pass a bill that would extend a tax credit to employers who employ and retain homeless adults for at least nine months. The credit will be offered under a pilot program funded at $100,000.
"This is a win-win for the homeless and business communities. The increased employment will positively benefit our economy in a myriad of ways and will help remove the stigma from a group of people who simply need an opportunity to succeed," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, sponsor of HB140.
Meanwhile, lawmakers cracked down on those asking for handouts. HB101 prohibits people from “engaging in conduct that impedes or blocks traffic within certain roadways.” The prohibition applies to state roads, underpasses and exits.
A previous state law on panhandling was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2012. The bill's sponsors say this year's version meets constitutional muster because it focuses on public safety.
Other "helping" bills passed by lawmakers include HB321, which gives the Department of Workforce Services greater latitude to extend a limited number of services to refugees such as English language instruction, emergency assistance and treatment for victims of domestic violence.
Another bill approved by lawmakers empowers caregivers of children in DCFS custody to decide whether children may participate in activities such as traveling with a school group or attending prom.
The so-called “normalcy bill” provides legal protection to foster parents or other guardians if a child is injured while participating in an activity providing the caregiver “acted with a reasonable and prudent parent standard.” Youth in foster care lobbied lawmakers for HB346.
After extensive discussion and debate in recent months about the state's adoption laws and putative fathers, the Legislature passed SB229.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, requires birth mothers placing a child for adoption and who have lived in Utah less than 90 days to file a declaration in court regarding each potential birth father. A judge would then decide "whether that person or persons deserve notice," Weiler said in Senate debate.
Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, the bill's House sponsor, said the legislation closes a loophole in the law that has encouraged "forum shopping" by unmarried pregnant women who come to Utah to quickly give up give up their babies for adoption, at times without the knowledge of biological fathers.
The information would not be considered a public record, Wilson said.
Meanwhile, a bill that would have allowed grandparents to petition for visitation after a parent’s rights have been terminated, unless the child is adopted by a nonrelative, was intensely debated in the Senate but died on a tie vote.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company