The Utah House passed a bill Friday that takes the state a step closer to a new law that would make the torture of a dog or cat a criminal act punishable as a felony.

HB470, sponsored by Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, adds the new provision to current code addressing acts of animal cruelty. Allen said punishments for lesser offenses remain unchanged.

The bill "simply raises the punishment level for torture," she said. "We do not change the penalties for cruelty or aggravated cruelty."

The lesser charges of animal abuse are punishable at the misdemeanor level.

Allen's bill is essentially identical to SB297, sponsored by Sen. Allen Christensen, R-Ogden, that passed the Senate on Wednesday and is currently making its way through the House.

Legislators OK change to child-abuse laws

A bill to unfix a fix made a year ago to the state's child-abuse laws in order to comply with a new federal child protection act received final legislative approval in the Senate on Friday.

HB36 was in the works shortly after the language it replaces was put in state code. It reinstates emergency kinship placement of abused kids taken into state foster care. Kinship placement was prohibited, state child welfare officials said, because under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, all potential adoptive families or adult guardians — including relatives — must have completed an FBI criminal background check prior to a placement.

Background checks were conducted as fast as possible, and most children could be placed with relatives in a matter of a day or two, DCFS reports. There were at least eight families who said they waited five to six weeks, and two said they waited three months. They accused the state of doing more harm than good by compounding the emotional trauma an abused child faces by forcing children involved to live in unfamiliar surroundings immediately after they were removed from parents' care.

Passage of this legislation results in a $49,000 loss in federal funding in the 2008 fiscal year, and $147,000 in 2009 because the state is violating the federal law. The state will make up the difference. Other states have said they kept emergency placements with relatives and are following an unofficial "ask for forgiveness, not permission" policy.

Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan and sponsor of HB36, said abuse caseworkers with a good feel for a situation can make a judgment about a relative in 10 or 15 minutes. The choice was multiple emergency placements with relatives or in a shelter. "We can do without the funding while the background checks are done."

Software-hardware bill crashes in the House

A bill to prepare youngsters for kindergarten by giving them computers and software — a top priority of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee — crashed Friday in the House.

HB200, sponsored by Rep. Brad Last, R-St. George, which had been promised $3.5 million by Executive Appropriations Committee, failed on a 37-31 vote.

The bill would have offered computer software and for some, hardware, to help 3- and 4-year-olds learn math and literacy basics needed for kindergarten. The pilot program would be Web-based, and track when students are online with the program, and test them periodically to track their learning through third grade, and make annual reports.

"This will close the gap for those in disadvantaged situations that never catch up," said Rep. Sylvia Andersen, R-Sandy.

But Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, questioned whether the bill balanced state and parental responsibilities.

"Before, kindergarten was kind of a stretch, and now we're doing all-day kindergarten and now moving to preschool kids, and at some point ... are we usurping some ... responsibilities of parents who need to start taking the lead in teaching children?" Morley said. "I'm very concerned that if we start moving in this direction, do we start when they're just 18 months, or a year? When does it stop?"

House defers action on SLCC merger bill

Legislators deferred progress on the merger of Salt Lake Community College with Salt Lake-Tooele Applied Technology College to an interim task force for further study this summer.

Following multiple substitutes and various amendments, HB284, that would have consolidated the efforts of the two colleges, which both currently offer career and technical education, failed to live through a debate on the floor of the Utah State House of Representatives.