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Lawmakers say they made strides but need to look to the future

Published: Monday, March 17 2014 5:47 p.m. MDT

After what House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, called an After what House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, called an "intense" 45-day legislative session, Utah lawmakers are already looking forward to what's next. (Shutterstock)

SALT LAKE CITY — After what House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, called an "intense" 45-day legislative session, Utah lawmakers are already looking forward to what's next.

Two minority leaders served as panel members Monday for a legislative wrap-up forum at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. Two members of GOP leadership were expected as well, but did not attend.

Lawmakers made strides this session, but many topics need to be addressed further, including clean air, higher education and technology in the classroom, according to Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City.

Briscoe called the session "drinking water from a fire hose" because lawmakers look at 800 pieces of legislation in 45 days, and about a third of votes happen in the last three days.

This session covered a variety of issues, but Davis said the Legislature reached one of its most important goals — a balanced budget. However, he said, there were many shortfalls.

"These are shortfalls that we need to address in the future," he said. "Funding is always a challenge."

Davis said a key change that could be made is about "process, process, process."

He suggests the Legislature conduct an overview of the base budget for the first three or four days and then get on to the new budget. That way, more bills will get through committee, so there's more time to discuss them. Davis also said leaders need to take a better look at prioritizing bills.

Briscoe, cofounder of the bipartisan clean air caucus, said the Legislature did a nice job addressing the complex issue of air quality in response to the public telling them, "Do something."

Almost $4.7 million was appropriated specifically for clean air issues, according to Briscoe.

"Clean air caucus is not going away. … Democrats and Republicans are going to come back again with a lot more bills going through," he said.

Education will also continue to be a hot topic. Davis said the core need of education is funding. An anticipated 10,000 more students will be added to Utah's elementary and secondary school population by October, according to Briscoe.

"According to our fiscal analysis, in public education we're spending just over $30 more per child in state dollars now than we did in 1997," Davis said. "At some time, we've got to take a look, the same as any business would, at what point we start reinvesting in the state of Utah and stop resting on our laurels."

Briscoe tipped his hat to Lockhart for putting together a bold proposal about investing in technologies in schools, even though the proposal failed. Davis agreed technology in the classroom is "very, very important." However, they both said great education is about how to learn, not just what to learn, and there needs to be a blended approach of online and classroom education.

"The problem here, we're under the balanced budget, we all want a better education system, but we're locked on how much money we can spend by the fact that we have to balance our budget and nobody wants to raise taxes. So you can never get to that equilibrium that we really need in our society," Davis said.

After mentioning the various Medicaid plans that failed, Davis pointed out that they gave the governor the opportunity to go back to Washington and talk about expanding Medicaid in Utah.

"I was disappointed that there are still 50,000 to 60,000 Utahns a day that are in the gap, that aren't getting any health care coverage," Briscoe said.

Another "battle," as Davis called it, was the Count My Vote initiative to change Utah's caucus and convention system to a direct primary. He said he viewed it as a problem within the Republican Party, but Democrats jumped on board with the compromise.

The upcoming election will show whether it was solved the right way, Davis said. Both he and Briscoe have filed for re-election and will be busy knocking doors and attending caucuses this week, which they urged voters to attend.

"My question is, 'Can we take what's really good now and can we do it even better?' I think we can," Briscoe said. "I'm not satisfied with being good, I want to be great, and I think there are things we can do to make Utah great."

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