In beautifully remodeled chambers, new offices and with a sense that they are back where they belong, Utah's 104 part-time legislators open their 2008 Legislature Monday morning in the Utah State Capitol.
And legislative leaders hope it will also be the last time they convene on Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday ending the annual debate about legislative "insensitivity," as well, since the conflict is rooted in the state's constitution.
For the past three years, legislators and top state elected leaders have been in temporary digs in two office buildings behind the Capitol, which underwent a $250 million earthquake retrofitting and remodeling, reopening just weeks ago.
And a state constitutional amendment will go before voters in November, seeking to officially change the first day of each Legislature to miss the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and GOP and Democratic leaders alike believe this 45-day general session will bring increased spending for Utah's schoolchildren and teachers, a renewed effort to provide affordable health insurance to Utah's uninsured, the adoption of a nearly $13 billion budget, debates on hundreds of proposed new laws, and another round of tax cuts.This is also an election year for Huntsman, all 75 House members and half of the 29-member Senate. So local and statewide politics will be considered in Capitol hallways, too. All candidates must file for office just two weeks after lawmakers adjourn March 5, as Huntsman ponders whether to sign or veto 300 or so new laws.
Unknown to many
While the 104 egos in the House and Senate may find it hard to believe, a new Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll shows that 60 percent of Utahns can't name their representative or senator. Only 14 percent said they can name both of their legislators, found pollster Dan Jones & Associates.
Even legislative leaders whose names are often in the media labor in obscurity.
"My own poll of my constituents found that most didn't recognize my name," said House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, who will lead his two-thirds GOP majority in the House for the fourth straight year.
Jones, whose wife and polling partner is Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, also found that most Utahns 51 percent do not want another tax cut from lawmakers this year. Forty-one percent of Utahns said they want a tax cut.
Huntsman did not suggest a tax cut in his recommended 2008-2009 budget released last month, saying that after $400 million in tax cuts over the past three years, 2008 was time to catch up on some needy programs.
"I'm not thinking in terms of a tax cut or I would have put it in the budget," Huntsman said. But if a tax cut "hits my table" in the form of bills "we will certainly take a look at it on the property tax side" because many Utahns are "feeling the pinch" of higher home property taxes following reappraisal in several large counties.
But House Republicans, in a closed caucus last month, found enough votes for a $100 million tax cut, while Senate Republicans, also in a closed caucus, voted to give some kind of tax cut, with no number yet attached.
Both Curtis and Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said they believe there will be another round of tax cuts, most likely in some adjustment to the state-mandated school property tax.
If tax cuts are coming, Jones found that 34 percent of Utahns want the sales tax on food reduced. Twenty-one percent said property taxes should be trimmed. The sales tax on unprepared food was cut to 3 percent statewide by last year's Legislature, and Curtis said lawmakers don't want to mess with it again so soon.
"We will finish the job" of removing the rest of the food tax in the next two or three years, said Huntsman, assuming the governor wins another term in November.A number of Utah homeowners were shocked in late 2007 when they got their property tax notices. Several large counties reassessed properties last year, and many homeowners saw the recent hot housing market reflected in higher property taxes. Lawmakers are hearing the complaints
How much to cut?
Curtis, Valentine and other GOP lawmakers clearly recognized their political bases in talking tax cuts. Jones found that while 41 percent of Utahns in general want a tax cut this year, 48 percent of those who said they are Republicans said they do want their taxes cut. Only 30 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of independents want tax cuts, Jones found.
"There will be some level of tax cuts," said Curtis. "What we don't know yet is what level or which tax."
Valentine and House Minority Leader Brad King, D-Price, agree.
"I think there will be a reduction in the property tax," said Valentine. The state levies no property tax itself. However, it does require that all 40 school districts levy a basic property tax to support schools, so legislators can lower that tax levy which would give a tax cut to all real property owners, homeowners and businesses alike.
"I think there will be tax cuts," said King, who stepped into the top House Democratic post after former minority leader Ralph Becker was elected Salt Lake City mayor in November. However, "it may not be wise (to do so), with the uncertainty of (Utah's) economy, which seems to be weakening" like other states', King said.
Curtis and Valentine agree there could be some economic downturns or at least a slowing of growth in the months ahead. But there is just too much new tax surplus and ongoing revenue growth to spend it all.
As Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, chair of the House's Conservative Caucus, said: The best way to slow government growth is not to spend every dime, as some legislators may want, but to "take some money off the table through tax cuts that ensures it can't be spent."
House Republicans' $100 million tax cut "is a low-water mark, I believe," said Hughes. "It should be at least that."
Even though legislators will again pump hundreds of millions of dollars into road reconstruction especially freeways in Utah and Salt Lake counties don't look for a gasoline tax hike to help pay for it.
Utah still is seeing record tax growth overall, even if the gas tax is not keeping up with construction demands. And Jones found that 68 percent of Utahns "strongly" or "somewhat" oppose raising the gasoline tax, especially in light of record-high gasoline prices at the pumps.
Huntsman said while the gas tax hasn't been increased recently, "we have a lot of bonding capacity" that beyond 2008 could be used to raise hundreds of millions of dollars each year "to get (roads) where they need to be. We are in the best fiscal state of any state in the nation," Huntsman said.All the leaders agreed, however, that final tax cut and budget numbers won't be decided until late February revenue updates come in.
All three men said part of the Legislature's budget-setting process will be record spending on public education. Some Republicans want to give all teachers a flat $2,500 pay raise as legislators did last year.
And Jones found that Utahns also like that idea. As reported Friday, 75 percent of Utahns want teachers to get that raise again.
The flat raise goes along with what legislative Republicans are also looking at more accountability and flexibility in paying Utah's 23,000 public school teachers. That could mean nine-month contracts, performance accountability, higher pay for science and math teachers or other changes to "education as usual."
In fact, it has been a pretty good couple of years for public schools and public education teachers, says Susan Kuziak, executive director of the Utah Education Association, the main teacher union.
Besides record spending and healthy pay hikes coming out of the 2007 Legislature, teachers and public school advocates saw the defeat of private school vouchers by voters last November. Curtis and Valentine promise there will be no voucher bills in the 2008 session.
And the UEA just won a federal lawsuit over political action committee pay check deductions a clear attempt by GOP legislators several years ago to harm the union's PAC fund raising. For years, the UEA has opposed some conservative lawmakers' elections through one of the largest PACs in the state.
"We aren't crowing at all," said Kuziak. "But, yes, 2007 was a pretty good year for public education advocates. We look forward to working with all legislators this session to strengthen public education in Utah something that the citizens are engaged in and clearly want to do."Huntsman said the public is smart and can smell behavior that is "transparently political" and he hopes that election-year politics will be lessened because of it.
Finally, there are usually perennial debates at the Legislature on several issues abortion, gun rights, DUI and Utah's liquor laws.
Jones asked whether Utahns like the current liquor laws or whether they should be changed to allow either liquor-by-the-drink in state-licensed private clubs or bars or whether it was time to just get the state out of liquor control all together.
Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed said that Utah's current liquor laws where alcohol, except for 3.2 percent beer, is sold in state stores or in licensed restaurants and private clubs are fine the way they are.
Thirty-five percent said there should be liquor-by-the-drink or anyone should be able to buy an alcoholic drink in a licensed bar or restaurant without having to purchase food or a membership.
And 18 percent said the state should just get out of the liquor business altogether and let private retail stores sell liquor any way they wish. Two percent had some other answer and 6 percent didn't know.A bit surprisingly, then, 53 percent did not like Utah liquor laws as they now stand and wanted some loosening of those liquor laws, Jones found.