The mildest Utah Legislature in recent memory stayed in character right to the end, slipping out of town quietly, well before the Wednesday midnight deadline.

Gaveled to a close before 10 p.m., the 1998 general session must be considered, by about any measure, the kindest, gentlest gathering of the 1990s.No last-minute fireworks. No abortion fight. No great tax arguments. No illegal, secret caucuses. Not even any loud demonstrations in the Capitol rotunda. Just 45 days of mostly civil debate and vote after vote on 700 bills and resolutions.

Yes, some history was made.

The state went into debt on roads like never before - upward of $790 million in borrowing over the past two years. And another $84 million road bond will likely face the 1999 Legislature.

While much was accomplished on the transportation front, House budget chairman Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, said the 10-year Centennial Highway project is still $120 million in the red. "We'll come back next year to work on that; we have seven more years" to make up the difference, Stephens added.

State income taxes go up slightly - $35 for a family of four - in 1998 because lawmakers didn't act to offset an automatic increase coming due to federal income-tax reductions.

A new health insurance program was adopted for poor children whose parents aren't on welfare.

A small pilot program was started on charter schools, where parents and sponsoring businesses can set up a special curriculum program.

And while myriad fee increases are always passed in each session, only a few of the 1998 fee hikes will touch many Utahns. Fishing licenses go up $2; small game licenses up $1. Car rental taxes increased from 3 percent to 7 percent.

You'll also see a difference in how you pay the yearly property tax on your car. No longer will the standard "blue book" of car values be used in appraisals.

Instead, you'll pay a uniform fee based on the age of your vehicle.

With all that, however, the 1998 Legislature, facing elections for all 75 House members and half of the senators later this year, may be remembered for what it didn't do rather than what it did.

It didn't act, or even publicly debate, any measures aimed at limiting where concealed weapon permitholders may carry their weapons.

It didn't take any real steps toward preserving open space along the rapidly growing Wasatch Front.

It didn't make great changes to Utah property tax law and declined to give a tax break to people who own second homes or cabins.

The 1998 Legislature may become famous, in years to come, over something that was little reported and never seen on any agenda.

About 25 House Republicans met before the session began and formed what they call the "mainstream" GOP caucus. The group wants to have a greater impact on the 75-member House, where Republicans hold 55 seats.

While making modest impacts on how the whole GOP caucus spent money on programs, bills and task forces, the real effect of the caucus may not be seen until House Republican leadership elections are held after the November legislative elections.

In a meeting last week, mainstream caucus members discussed whether they want a multiple-term speaker - and House Speaker Mel Brown is seriously considering running for a third, two-year term as speaker later this year. If the caucus upends Brown, the ramifications over the next four to eight years could be significant. A swing back toward to the middle, politically speaking, is a possibility.

But that is down the road.

The talk Wednesday was of ending early. And while the 5 p.m. adjournment goal fell short by four hours, ending work just after 9 p.m. was a record. And proof, GOP and Democratic leaders alike said, of the best-managed session in Utah's history.

Overall, most lawmakers and Leavitt gave passing marks to the 1998 Legislature.

"We opened a new chapter in public education. The state is a safer place because of what you did for public safety. Forty thousand Utah children will get quality health care. And concerning nuclear spent energy rods, we said very clearly we don't want it here," Leavitt told the House upon adjournment.

House Minority Leader Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake, begged to disagree: "I still feel this was basically a do-nothing Legislature (in 1998) on the key issues that matter to families."

As is always the case, not everyone received what he wanted. Leavitt recommended 4 percent pay raises. But even with budgets growing, on average, by 2.6 percent, pay for state workers and teachers went up 3.5 percent.

Still, there was more money for public schools and enough to reduce the class size of middle schools by an average of two pupils, to construct more prison cells, and to approve new state buildings.

Some controversial decisions were put off.

A legislative committee will study during the rest of 1998 whether hazardous waste fees should be increased and whether low-level radioactive material should be approved for storage in one or more additional private dump sites in Utah's West Desert.

So-called moral bills - from tweaking the abortion law to banning nude dancing - were reportedly privately drafted by some conservative GOP lawmakers. But the lawmakers either rethought their ideas or leaders quietly told them now was not the year. None of the traditional moral bills ever came forward.

However, in a surprise move late Wednesday night, a bill that would require parental approval before a minor child could have body piercing was amended to include tattooing. According to sponsor Rep. Dave Ure, R-Kamas, before a body pierce or tattoo can be applied on a child by anyone, professional or not, "the parents will have to accompany the child and show a birth certificate; I want to be that strict about this."

One of the most emotionally charged issues of the session, English as the official language bill, sponsored by Rep. Tammy Rowan, R-Orem, was killed in committee - not even allowed on the House floor for debate.

And several conservatives on the committee told Rowan that they voted against her bill not so much because they disapproved of it but because it had become so controversial and misunderstood that hard feelings were splitting the community.

Rowan says she will try to get the measure on the ballot in November through the citizen-initiative process.

Lawmakers ended Wednesday with no great unsolved problems. As of now, there appears to be no need to call legislators into a special session later in 1998.



Utah bonds

What the state has borrowed to finance roads, buildings and water projects

1993 $128 million

1994 $84 million

1995 $126 million

1996 $146 million

1997 $81 million

1998 $669 million (year to date)

1999 $288 million (authorized)

SOURCE: Division of Finance