Despite failures earlier this year, lawmakers will bring back controversial bills to raise the state's age limit for marriage and to help law enforcement officers crack down on truant students in the 1999 session.
Lawmakers killed a bill this year that would have raised the age limit for marriage in Utah from 14 to 16. They also failed to take action on a truancy bill that would have allowed stiff penalties for parents and made it easier for law enforcement officials to deal with sluffing students.But the issues will be back when the Legislature convenes in January, Deputy Attorney General Reed Richards told law enforcement officials at a strategic planning meeting at the state Capitol Thursday.
Utah is one of only three states that allows 14- and 15-year-olds to marry. Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, D-Granite, says the state should do something to protect teens from marriages to much older people. In 1996, 1,000 Utah teens married, including a 15-year-old girl to a 45-year-old man. A parent and juvenile judge had to approve the union.
"What is a 45-year-old man doing pursuing a 15-year-old child?" Howell asked. "The bill should have passed last year, and I want to make sure it passes this year so we protect young women and young men barely out of puberty."
This year's bill didn't reach the Senate floor until the last day of the session, something Howell said won't happen again. The 1999 version, which Howell will sponsor, is already drafted.
The bill may not largely affect polygamous unions, most of which are not recognized by the state because they involved secret, religious ceremonies. But Howell is pursuing two other pieces of legislation directly dealing with polygamy, a topic that has been scrutinized in Utah all summer.
Howell will ask his colleagues to appropriate money to build shelters around the state for women and children leaving polygamy. He hopes the private sector will step up to match legislative dollars to make the shelters possible. And, he will seek money for a task force on polygamy.
Howell quoted a recent Deseret News survey, which found a majority of Utahns want something done about polygamy.
"If we don't do something, then that means we're not listening to the citizens of the state of Utah," Howell said.
One of Howell's colleagues will reintroduce a bill that was one of this year's most controversial. Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake, will resurrect a bill to hold parents responsible for habitually truant schoolchildren.
The Senate sent the bill to interim study. Opponents feared governmental intrusion and wanted truancy suspects referred to juvenile courts, not justice courts.
Bourdeaux, who has worked with the courts on that issue, says the new bill would keep truancy suspects in the juvenile courts, while parent offenders could go through the justice courts where caseloads are lighter.
The compulsory education law requires schools to make "earnest and persistent" efforts, including counseling, to shepherd students six to 18 years old to class.
The old bill aimed to put teeth in the law by fining parents of students unexcused four times in four weeks or 10 in a semester, but only when problems persist after the school attempts to work with them. Fines would range from $50 to $250 but could be waived for proof of one month's perfect attendance or agency referrals. Oklahoma employs such tactics.
Truants now can be detained by authorities; centers for that purpose exist in Salt Lake and Utah counties. In Washington Terrace, police can pick up truants and assess fines similar to those in the bill, an effort said to decrease daytime crime.
Several meetings have been held statewide in which truancy legislation has been discussed with court, education and law enforcement representatives, among others. No one showed up for a meeting set up by the Attorney General's Office Thursday afternoon.
But Assistant Attorney General Bill Evans considers that a sign of lawmakers being out of town and schoolteachers in class - not apathy.
"Whenever we've been in meetings where it has been discussed, with educators especially, there is plenty of energy," he said. "There's no lack of concern."
Over the next two months, officials from the Utah Attorney General's Office will hold meetings throughout the state to discuss the upcoming legislative session with local officials.