House Speaker Greg Curtis is worried if someone takes the omnibus education funding bill to court and wins, the result will be a "significant diminishment of the legislative power." But so far, nobody is going to court.
"When I leave I want to make sure I didn't diminish legislative powers by rolling over to inaccuracies and political pressure," Curtis, R-Sandy, said.
Curtis said lawmakers did nothing wrong when they rolled a dozen money-linked school bills in SB2, some of which had been voted down earlier in the session, into the schools' $2.5 million budget, the Minimum School Programs Act. Additionally, the bills were debated publicly in open House caucuses and on the House and Senate floors.
Two of the bills resurrected in the omnibus bill include one that budgeted $3.5 million to give software to families to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten, and another to require school districts to kick in a portion of charter school funding.
While nobody has officially said they are going to court on the issue, the State Board of Education did question the bill's constitutionality when it asked Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to veto the bill. Additionally, Curtis said several others are threatening to take the bill to court for political gain.
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said the possibility of a lawsuit "was mentioned in passing" during the closed-door Senate GOP caucus Wednesday.
"It opens up a Pandora's box of inability to even understand what is or is not a single-subject bill. That's what the issue is," Valentine said, referring to the effort to limit bills to a single topic. "It's a rule we have to protect from pork-barreling," the congressional practice of slipping in pet projects into unrelated legislation, he said, describing SB2 as solely about education financing.
Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said lawmakers will fight any attempt to limit their powers.
"We will go the distance on defending the prerogative of the Legislature to pass legislation that is consistent with the Constitution," Bramble said. "Anyone can sue. I don't believe a suit would have merit."
Bramble said omnibus bills were nothing unusual. "We have had omnibus bills every year I've been up here," he said, citing as an example the 2007 tax reform legislation that included changes to the state income and sale tax systems.
Any portion of the bill could have been changed or amended, the Senate majority leader said, if enough lawmakers agreed. "This bill was subject to amendment. They just didn't have the vote." That some portions of the final bill had failed when run as individual legislation "doesn't matter," he said. Also, Bramble said, SB2 was not an appropriations bill.
The Utah Constitution prohibits "logrolling" unconnected bills into one, according to a letter from the state school board to the governor asking him to use line-item veto powers on the bill. But lawmakers can bundle budget bills together if the bills are budget-related.
Huntsman's spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, has said that SB2 was not an appropriations bill.
If that's true, board member Kim Burningham has said he believes it's unconstitutional to bundle unrelated bills.
But so far, aside from grumbles from the education community, Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the Utah Office of Education, said she has heard nothing concerning a legal challenge.
"I have heard nothing at our level or from state board members," Lear said. "I've heard people are disgruntled, but beyond that I've heard nothing."
Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, voted for the bill but now wonders whether it was constitutional to lump a bunch of education bills together. She has asked to meet with Curtis and education officials to discuss whether the bill is constitutional."That came through fast and furiously," Allen said of SB2. "I just have some questions about the constitutionality of it."
Contributing: Tiffany Erickson