Utah's 104 lawmakers opened the 45-day general session of the Legislature Monday with prayers, speeches, apprehension over affairs in the Persian Gulf and concerns at home.
Over the next six weeks, Gov. Norm Bangerter and the Republican members of the House and Senate will direct state budget- and lawmaking while the minority Democrats will do what they can to influence the majority's actions.As always, lawmakers must adopt a balanced state budget, which takes effect July 1. Bangerter recommends no new taxes and no tax decreases in his $3.5 billion spending package. The governor does recommend a $5 increase in driver's license fees to pay for better customer service at the licensing centers. He suggested the same increase last year, but lawmakers declined to give it to him.
Elder James E. Faust of the Council of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prayed in the Senate that partisanship would not rule the day. He asked for a free communication of ideas and feelings, honestly held. "We also pray for the men and women of our armed forces and allies and pray for peace to soften the hearts of those in the Persian Gulf."
This Legislature meets in uncertain times, said Senate President Arnold Christensen, R-Sandy. "Old solutions are no longer the answers for new problems."
He said lawmakers must deal with difficult property tax questions and demands that outstrip resources. "For example, in Human Services, child welfare cases are up 137 percent, but our staff to deal with that is up only 15 percent."
In the House, the Rev. Canon Bradley S. Wirth of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah prayed to protect "those in harm's way," to avoid "death by the sword." He also prayed for the state's poor and needy.
Newly elected Speaker of the House Craig Moody's thoughts were also on the Middle East. "Our faith needs to be with our soldiers in that difficult situation they are in. We must remember them in our prayers. We live in a very sobering time."
Moody proclaimed the theme of this year's session as the family, both traditional and non-traditional. There needs to be a stronger effort toward involving parents in education, dealing with the growth in higher education and doing a better job inaddressing social service needs, he said. "If that means more money for day care, then we need to do that."
Other issues that will draw legislators' attention include:
Bangerter, who wants tougher state abortion laws, is concerned that the Abortion Task Force's proposed legislation, sponsored by Rep. Evan Olsen, R-Young Ward, and Sen. LeRay McAllister, R-Provo, goes too far too quickly.
The governor doesn't want Utahns to pay the legal costs of appealing a groundbreaking anti-abortion law that has, in his opinion, little chance of being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Olsen and McAllister believe their bill - which outlaws abortions except in cases of promptly reported rape and incest, to save the life of the mother or if the fetus is so deformed it can't survive birth - has a good chance of being upheld. "Ours is not a bill dictated by Right To Life of Utah, not a bill drafted by Richard Wilkins (the Brigham Young University law professor who advises Bangerter on abortion)," said Olsen. "It is a committee bill from the ground up, put together after public hearings across this state."
Bangerter could seek amendments to the task force bill or veto it if it becomes law. Most believe lawmakers will pass some kind of restrictive abortion law this session.
- PROPERTY TAXES. A complicated and far-reaching decision by the Utah Supreme Court concerning AMAX Corp.'s property taxes has led Bangerter and GOP legislative leaders to conclude the current property tax formula must be changed. At risk is $56 million ($23 million in the state's Uniform School Fund) in property taxes paid by large, state-assessed businesses that cross county lines - mines, railroads and utilities.
Bangerter and his colleagues want to find some way to abide by constitutional guarantees of equal assessment for all properties while not shifting the $56 million from large, multicounty businesses to local businesses and homeowners. One way may be to impose new taxes on the large businesses, such as a pollution tax, increased severance tax or a gross receipts tax. If they fail in that effort, local property taxes will likely go up.
- CAMPAIGN AND ETHICS REFORM. A number of bills have been pre-filed concerning campaign financing and legislative ethics. Common Cause of Utah, Bangerter and Democratic and Republican Party officials want a wide range of reforms, including year-round campaign reporting by lawmakers, limits on the terms of legislators and better conflict-of-interest reporting. Many also want lobbyists to start reporting how much money they spend entertaining legislators.
Not directly related to those efforts, Rep. Dionne Halverson, D-Ogden, is fighting for her political life after pleading no contest to a shoplifting charge over the Christmas holidays. Some are calling for Halverson's resignation, while Democratic officials promise ethics committee hearings for Halverson.
Bangerter's wish list
The Utah Legislature will consider the following list - not ranked in order of importance - that the governor has indicated he wants:
- Create a Department of Environmental Quality.
- Solve the AMAX property tax problem without raising taxes on homeowners.
- Legislative campaign and ethics reform.
- $3 million for health insurance for "uninsurables."
- $4 million to start a six-year, class-size reduction program.
- Change the selection process for the state Board of Education.
- Adequate funding for Salt Palace remodeling.
- Complete the West Valley Highway to 7800 South.
- Expand the "drug-free zone" around schools to include parks and other places where youths gather.
- Notification of victims by the Board of Pardons when their criminal comes before the board and is paroled.
- Give San Juan County Navajos more control over their tribe's Utah mineral royalties.