SALT LAKE CITY — Air pollution has cast an ugly gray cloud over the Capitol for most the first three weeks of the 2013 Utah Legislature.
The winter inversion that traps smog in the Salt Lake Valley has been one of the worst in recent memory. The air has reached unhealthy levels on more than 20 days this year, according to the state Division of Air Quality.
"So, obviously that's going to drive the discussion," said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe.
Utahns, including doctors and mothers, have made their voices heard, rallying several times to demand lawmakers do something about the haze and its threat to good health. And the business community says air quality is a pivotal issue because it has become an impediment to economic development and recruiting top professionals to the state.
"I've never had so much communication about clean air," said House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
As legislators return to the capitol Tuesday, the lack of clean air has emerged as a top-of-mind issue as the real legislative work begins. Lawmakers typically spend the first half of the 45-day session teeing up bills for a fast and furious final week.
Gun laws, education funding and building a state budget amid fiscal uncertainty in Washington are looming. The ongoing controversy surrounding Republican Attorney General John Swallow hasn't sidetracked lawmakers, but it has created an undercurrent of uneasiness and spurred calls for ethics reform.
Legislation proposing to raise the sales tax on food has yet to come out, and apparently won't. Republican leaders in the Senate, where the bill would have originated, said the House wouldn't support it. A food tax is of great concern to advocates for low income families struggling to put food on the table week after week.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, has made it clear she doesn't want the bill to pass.
"I am personally opposed to putting the sales tax back on food. The House and the Senate are very different bodies," she said. "They make their own decisions."
All the noise, not to mention hacking and wheezing, about smog has apparently spurred lawmakers to action.
Democrats, who are a decided minority in the Legislature, unveiled a package of clean-air bills last week. One proposal would create a restricted fund to provide more operational support for mass transit.
But getting money into such an account doesn't appear likely.
Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, are not inclined to raise the gas tax or increase the local option sales tax for transit.
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams said he is working with the House, the governor's office and community interests on legislation he intends to unveil this week.
"We're trying to do this as a joint effort. I think it's important to make sure as we discuss it that we've looked at all the different options," the Layton Republican said.
Adams declined to reveal details of the proposal but said it would be beneficial to both air quality and the economy.
House Republicans are promising to introduce new legislation dealing with air quality, while GOP Gov. Gary Herbert has stressed the state's efforts on air quality during his question-and-answer sessions with the media.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said the majority party's proposals "will be substantial," but declined to offer any specifics, citing leadership's attempt to solicit bipartisan support before the legislation is unveiled.
At least 10 gun-related bills have been filed, with legislators likely to start taking them up this week.
House GOP leaders said the legislation has surfaced as a reaction to President Barack Obama's gun-control proposals, including a ban on assault weapons, that followed the deadly school shootings in Connecticut.
"I think many of us hoped no one on either side of the issue would politicize" the tragedy, Hughes said. "I had hoped the issue of guns, pro-gun control or looking at Second Amendment rights, we would just leave alone."
But Hughes and Lockhart said the president's proposals have put lawmakers on the defensive.
Receiving the most attention is a bill from freshman Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, HB114, intended to stop federal gun laws from being enforced in Utah. Greene's bill received cheers at a massive pro-gun rally at the Capitol before the session.
The governor weighed in on the issue last week, issuing what he said would be his guiding principles in deciding which gun control-related legislation he would allow to become law.
His principles included calling for lawmakers to find rational solutions. "I will not support message bills that inflame, rather than inform the discussion," Herbert warned. "Neither does it help to propose extreme measures that politicize or polarize the debate."
House leaders are attempting to temper the tenor of the debate by holding bills so they could be sent the same day to committees for hearings. But pro-gun advocates are planning to gather at the Capitol Friday and Saturday.
Fiscal unpredictability in Washington has thrown a wrench into the state budget process. How much additional money, if any, will be directed to public education as the governor recommended remains to be seen.
Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard said legislative leaders delayed new state revenue projections a week to Feb. 25. The Logan Republican said the uncertainty over spending cuts in Washington has made it more difficult to assemble the budget this year.
"They are some challenges this year in trying to figure out the revenue situation, so I understand their caution because they really don't know what's coming," said Stephen Kroes, executive director of the Utah Foundation, a public policy research group.
The Social Security tax increase is expected to slow spending growth this year. Nationally, retail sales were slower than expected in January.
"We're already looking at some change from December when the governor put out his recommendations. The economy is likely to be a little slower. The spending cuts looming could affect Utah too," Kroes said.
House Budget Chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville, said lawmakers are committed to ending the session on March 14 with a balanced budget. If the federal budget is cut after the session ends, Brown said there likely will be a special session.
The later-than-usual revenue projections will make for a "pressure-packed" end to the session, Brown said. "We're going to go down to the wire. There will be probably be as much ugliness as we've seen in a while."
Lawmakers have already passed a base budget that reflects last year's spending levels. Now the fight is over how to allocate whatever new revenues are available. Brown said there's already a lot of "pork" being proposed.
"That's the piggy part of the budget," he said. "Everybody wants some."
Herbert built is proposed budget to include $300 million in revenue growth for the budget year that begins July 1, most of which he earmarked for public and higher education initiatives.
While Swallow's alleged involvement in a bribery scandal is whispered about in the hallways, GOP leaders clearly aren’t comfortable talking about his situation publicly.
The Legislature hasn't had to take an official action regarding the attorney general, but leaders did take a refresher on impeachment proceedings before convening Jan. 28.
The FBI is investigating Swallow's role in an alleged effort to bribe a U.S. senator to derail a possible federal lawsuit against a St. George Internet marketing company in 2010. It also is looking into his dealings with political campaign contributors.
Both Democrats and Republicans have proposed bills to dealing with campaign ethics as a result of the Swallow scandal, though they've tried to avoid using his name when talking about them.
Democrats want to see campaign contributions by PACs, companies and labor unions capped at $10,000 for state offices and $5,000 for legislative office. One Republican bill calls for establishment of independent ethics commission to hear complaints in the executive branch.
Herbert is counting on lawmakers to buy off on his goal of 66 percent of Utah adults obtaining a college degree or certificate by 2020. A resolution supporting the effort has undergone some changes and hasn't yet been heard on the floor of the Senate or House.
"This is a no brainer," the governor said. "It's my number one issue. I really do care about this passionately."
So far most of the education bills have been noncontroversial or housekeeping measures. A bill that would provide sex education for parents has changed a lot since its inception but is still designed to empower parents to teach their kids rather than relying solely on schools. Another bill would offer seminars to help parents beware of suicide warning signs.
Lawmakers did pass a bill elevating Dixie State College to university status, a bill signed Saturday by Herbert.
Decisions on health care reform and their impact on Utah families, of which plenty are looming for the state, have yet to cross the desks of Utah lawmakers.
A Utah Department of Health study estimating the perceived costs and benefits of expanding Medicaid has yet to be completed. It is due in the next week or so and is expected to provide insight on the issue. Bills working their way through the session are attempting to mandate certain procedures, including insurance coverage of autism treatment and virus detection in newborns, among others. But expansion of programs to provide health care access to a portion of Utah's more than 400,000 uninsured, has yet to be addressed.11 comments on this story
Utah is one of about seven states that remains undecided on the issue of expansion, which would be funded by the federal government for the first three years of implementation and then require 10 percent from the state thereafter, according to the Affordable Care Act.
Prior to the session starting, several lawmakers said the state's position on Medicaid expansion would not be decided until the federal government finalized its budget, giving leaders an idea of what reimbursements to expect. Medicaid remains the second-leading expenditure for the state, falling closely behind education.
Contributing: Wendy Leonard, Mary Mellor, Ben Wood