SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would give nursing mothers an exemption from jury service advanced to the state House of Representatives.
A bill designed to reduce conflict between former spouses and increase the time children of divorce spend with each parent is moving forward.
And a bill that would prevent anyone under age 18 from getting a tattoo has yet to be heard.
One-third of the way through Utah's 2015 legislative session, actions important to Utah families — from specific items like the tattooing measure, to the largest budget concerns such as education — are being debated. Here is a report on six areas of concern for Utahns.
Parents, students and teachers are already raising their voices in support of legislation they hope will foster a more personalized education experience for their families.
That includes Natalie Pollard, who is hoping lawmakers will provide better resources for teachers in helping her son, Aran, and other students with dyslexia overcome learning barriers.
It also includes Lorena Riffo-Jenson, who wants her daughters and others in the rising generation to be well-informed on their privilege and responsibility to actively engage in their community and government.
In his State of the State address, Gov. Gary Herbert spoke of his proposal to introduce $500 million in new funds for education and to allow local school districts the flexibility they need in meeting the needs of each student.
“As we continue to step up our investment in education, we must not sidestep our commitment to the principle of local control,” Herbert said.
With the likely availability of surplus dollars, lawmakers are well into the process of deciding how best to fund a variety of needs for students in the most efficient way possible.
Last week, the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee approved a $3.9 billion base budget recommendation, with $48.6 million to account for an expected enrollment increase of 7,000 students this fall.
Lawmakers are also keen on keeping class sizes as low as possible. One bill awaiting Senate approval would add $10 million to a $115 million fund devoted to lessening the ratio of students to teachers in Utah.
But being able to attract and retain quality teachers in the state remains a struggle. Utah’s starting teacher salaries fall between $10,000 and $20,000 a year below those in Wyoming, and lawmakers say they are realizing the need to provide better incentives for educators.
A bill that proposed raising the personal income tax in Utah by 0.5 percent to provide salary increases for teachers was struck down last week in committee. Bill sponsor Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, said finding ways to improve teacher salaries remains critical to lifting the quality of education in Utah.
“I’m going to weigh in very aggressively with my colleagues with addressing the issues that my bill would have addressed, and that is teacher pay and technology,” Draxler said.
Technology for education is in fact finding growing momentum in the Legislature. One bill awaiting Senate approval would appropriate funds to purchase software that would allow teachers to provide faster feedback on their students’ English language arts and writing coursework.
Another bill in the Senate seeks to allocate $2 million toward giving students foundational coursework in computer coding skills in junior high and high school.
However, Utah’s largest technology bill, which would facilitate 1-to-1 student technology programs and other initiatives, has yet to emerge. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who serves on the appropriations committees for public and higher education, said it was likely the bill would be numbered and scheduled for committee this week.
Science, technology, engineering and math aren’t the only priorities for lawmakers to decide on. Among the Utah State Board of Regents funding requests for higher education is a $36 million performing arts building at Utah Valley University, the only university in the state without a place to showcase its theater, ballroom dance and music programs.
Although the building remains relatively low on the priority list when compared with other buildings and a growing interest in performance-based funds for instructors and institutions, UVU leaders are asking the Legislature to take into account a broad range of educational needs and announced last week more than $15 million in private donations to help make it a reality.
It’s a task lawmakers hope to carry out for both public and higher education.
“In the final budget, when we get through with everything, we as chairs are committed to ensure that every single (school) has a sizable increase, and that hopefully we can walk away with whatever we’ve done and say, ‘It’s fair,’” Stephenson said.
Anti-discrimination and religious freedom remain at the forefront for Utah lawmakers, but they have yet to debate any legislation on the issues.
Republican majority leaders in the House and Senate want to combine protections against discrimination in housing and the workplace for LGBT Utahns with protections for religious rights in one bill.
Gov. Herbert also said there can't be one without the other.
Legislators say they're working that way, but House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he's not aware of any imminent legislation. Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said lawmakers might have "something that could be workable" in a few days.
Democrats say anti-discrimination and religious rights should be considered separately.
Much of the impetus for one piece of legislation stems from statements leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made on the second day of the legislative session.
They called on government officials to preserve religious rights while also protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels and transportation.
LDS Church leaders also emphasized that people should not be forced to perform services that go against their religious beliefs.
Discussions among lawmakers, the LGBT community, religious leaders and civic groups are ongoing. And on a national level, it reinvigorated debate among columnists and groups on all sides about the balance between religious liberty and anti-discrimination.
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka likened the process to bringing many sides together on a hate crimes law several years ago. She said this issue won't be as easy.
Ruzicka said lawmakers need to find a "proper balance" with "carefully written" language to balance a nondiscrimination law with religious freedom.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said he was "heartened" by a letter from Herbert that promised respectful discussions among all the parties involved.
"I completely take him at his word," Williams said.
State lawmakers remain at odds over what to do with Utah's gas tax.
Republican leaders in the Utah House and Senate agree it's time to make changes, but they differ over whether to make the per-gallon charge a sales tax that adjusts annually or just raise the existing tax.
Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, has a bill to increase the gasoline tax by 10 cents per gallon. It would also raise tax on diesel fuel by 5 cents per gallon.
Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, is proposing to base the charge on a percentage of the gas price, much like sales tax.
"I don't think that the House has much appetite for a gas tax increase," said House Speaker Hughes. "That would illustrate there's a lot of work to do to get some kind of agreement."
The House prefers changing the formula but not raising the tax, he said.
Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said senators are waiting for the bills to "mature" before having a caucus discussion.
Utah's 24.5-cent per gallon gas tax hasn't gone up since 1997.
The money is needed to help close a projected $11.3 billion gap in transportation funding through 2040, much of it for dealing with thousands of miles of deteriorating state roads.
A group of Utah business leaders on Jan. 27 said it's time to invest in both education and transportation, even if that means increasing taxes. But the group, which included officials from the Salt Lake Chamber, Prosperity 2020 and the Utah Transportation Coalition, did not offer specific recommendations for raising income taxes or gas taxes.
The wintertime temperature inversion has not yet dominated the 2015 legislative session, but addressing air quality concerns remains a key issue among lawmakers and advocates.
Several key measures have advanced out of committee, even as families, medical professionals and others took to the Capitol steps last week to make sure the relatively mild inversion season does not lessen the resolve for action.
Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, has had two of his air quality bills pass out of committees, and one — the school bus replacement bill — is poised for passage in the House.
That bill directs $20 million in one-time money to replace the dirtiest diesel school buses with alternative fuel vehicles. The funding is also part of the governor's budget recommendations, leading Handy to believe it has the political traction to pass this year.
Another bill, HB15, extends the tax credits on alternative fuel vehicles for another year and sets up a fund within the Utah Department of Environmental Quality for people to get upfront financial assistance to convert their vehicles to natural gas.
The idea is to provide for more immediate financial assistance — rather than a tax rebate — for conversions, although the tax credit remains in place.
Multiple clean air organizations came together Jan. 31 in a rally at the Capitol that drew thousands of people, a political push to make sure the challenge of cleaning up Utah's air remains front and center for lawmakers.
Seven of Utah's counties, or portions of them, remain out of compliance with the federal Clean Air standards on 24-hour levels of fine particulate or PM2.5. When inversions set in, levels spike and the nasty looking air has earned the state the unwelcome notoriety of having the dirtiest air in the country.
Although the Utah Air Quality Board has passed more than two dozen new rules aimed at cleaning up the air, advocates say more can be done.
In particular, they are watching SB87, sponsored by Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, which seeks to repeal a law that prevents the state air quality agency from making pollution rules more stringent than what the federal government requires.
"We are pushing really hard on that bill," said Tim Wagner, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
Like last year, the bill has made it out of committee, but groups worry it may not ultimately survive the session.
"If we don't come out of this with some measure to eliminate this crazy statute that allows us to go after this problem with our own agency and our own solutions, there are going to be a lot of people who are upset," Wagner said.
Advocates, too, are worried about the movement afoot by some lawmakers to upend the Air Quality Board's ability to pass a prohibition on wood burning, he said.
Gov. Herbert last week toured homeless services provider Volunteers of America — Utah's adult detoxification center and encouraged Utahns to contribute to the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund via a state income tax check-off.
Once clients' conditions are stable, Volunteers of America's addiction programs provide support and structure as clients start to work on substance abuse and other issues that are an impediment to their well-being, according to center director Sue Ativalu.
The visit called attention to the plight of those trying to overcome addiction, and to the homeless, and also allowed the governor to make a pitch for his Healthy Utah plan, an alternative to full Medicaid expansion that other states have adopted under the Affordable Care Act. That will be debated by legislators this week.
It's part of a push both on and off Capitol Hill to overcome the plight of poverty in all its forms, including a continuation of legislative work to solve intergenerational poverty.
More than 52,000 Utah children live in intergenerational poverty in Utah, according to the state's 2014 report on Intergenerational Poverty, Welfare Dependency and the Use of Public Assistance.
Intergenerational poverty is generally defined as two or more generations living in poverty, with intergenerational welfare recipients defined as people who received more than 12 months of public assistance as children and more than 12 months of assistance as adults.
HB139, sponsored by Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, would increase the maximum number of children who could be placed in a single licensed foster home to five, up from four, under certain circumstances. It's designed to keep siblings together.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said he plans to introduce legislation to help support the educational goals of people living in poverty to help stop the cycle of children of poverty following the same path of struggle that afflicts their parents.
It’s uncertain whether Utah voters will see a new primary system next year.
Some lawmakers are pushing back against a law from last year that altered the state’s political candidate nomination process.
The law, which morphed into SB54 from 2014’s Count My Vote initiative to restore voter turnout, gives candidates the option to bypass the state’s current caucus system and instead collect voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot. It also opens primary elections to all voters, as currently the state GOP only allows registered Republicans to vote in its primaries.
But the Utah Republican Party filed a lawsuit against SB54, claiming it was unconstitutional and that parties should be free to determine their candidate nomination process.
Now, some lawmakers are advancing legislation that would delay, if not undo, SB54. A Senate committee last week favorably passed two bills sponsored by Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, Friday.
Jenkins’ legislation would amend the Utah Constitution and, as a result, repeal SB54. Jenkins’ second bill that was approved Friday, SB43, would delay SB54’s changes until after the 2016 election.
Jenkins said delaying the law’s effect will give political parties much-needed time to adjust the law’s changes to the nomination system.
“We believe this will help the parties with the time they need to get their house in order,” Jenkins said.
In response to the committee’s decision Friday, the Alliance for Better Utah issued a statement in which executive director Maryann Martindale said the Legislature “acted entirely contrary to the will of the mainstream Utahns by passing out of committee the anti-Count My Vote bills.”
“Their actions further demonstrate just how out of touch our state Legislature is,” Martindale stated. “At a time when Utah voter turnout is at historic lows, the state Legislature should be opening the electoral process, not restricting it.”
Efforts to improve voter participation continue this year, as lawmakers are proposing a task force that will investigate factors behind Utah’s historically low voter turnout in 2014.
Last year marked Utah’s lowest voter participation in 54 years, with only 29 percent of Utah voters casting ballots, lawmakers said.
NOTE: Deseret News staff writers Morgan Jacobsen, Dennis Romboy, Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Marjorie Cortez and Katie McKellar contributed to this report.