January 14, 2014

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Article

2014 Legislative Preview

Legislators Gear Up for a Hectic 45-day Session

By LaVarr Webb

January 14, 2014


The old joke advising citizens to keep their hands firmly on their wallets during a legislative session probably doesn’t apply this year. Legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert have said tax increases are taboo during the short-but-hectic session that starts at the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 27 and runs 45 calendar days. 

But plenty of other issues will keep Utah’s 104 citizen lawmakers busy, notably education funding, the “Zion curtain” alcohol regulation, Medicaid expansion, bad air quality during weather inversions and campaign finance reform.   

No legislative session is easy. All of the simple problems have been solved before they get to the Legislature. But Utah doesn’t face any major crises, and the upcoming session is expected to be perhaps more routine than usual. What’s more, Utah government works reasonably well, unlike the dysfunctional U.S. Congress. Utah lawmakers get the important work accomplished. They balance the budget. They deal with long-term liabilities like pensions. They address problems head-on. They work together and partisanship isn’t very intense.

Here are some things to watch for in the upcoming session:

Education—everyone’s top priority.

Most surplus money will be invested in education, and it will be enough to pay for the additional children in the system and some modest reforms. Career readiness and a focus on science, technology and math will be the subject of reform proposals. The Common Core standards, supported by most business groups, may be under attack from some conservative legislators. Gov. Herbert has established a goal of working toward 66 percent of Utahns having a post-secondary degree or professional certification by 2020. He also has proposed spending more money for early education intervention and all-day kindergarten. Sen. Pat Jones has proposed eliminating some income tax deductions that would raise as much as $400 million for education.

The fight between mainstream Republicans and the far right.

Battles may ensue if legislators try to subvert the efforts of the Count My Vote initiative, which seeks to place a proposal on the ballot changing the party nomination process. Mainstream Republicans and Democrats tend to support the initiative, while tea party Republicans and some Democrats on the far left oppose it.

Politics.

This session will be the last for House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, so plenty of maneuvering will occur as veteran legislators seek to replace her. Lockhart will also have an eye on her gubernatorial prospects. She hasn’t attempted to diminish speculation that she wants to run for governor in 2016. All of the 75 House seats and half of the 29 Senate seats will be up for election in 2014, so the session will set the stage for the election to follow.

Campaign finance reform.

As a result of the various investigations into the campaign practices of former Attorney General John Swallow, a number of legislators want to craft legislation to prevent abuses and use of “dark money” in campaigns.

Federal/state relations.

Legislators will look for ways to push back against the federal government, especially to facilitate energy development in the Uintah Basin in the face of difficult federal environmental regulations.

Transportation.

Boosting the gas tax will be discussed, but legislative leaders have said that no tax increase will be approved. Because the fuel tax is a flat amount per gallon, it has lost much of its purchasing power due to inflation and higher vehicle fuel efficiency. Business leaders have supported a gas tax increase. Local leaders have suggested allowing counties to raise the gas tax without the Legislature having to act.

Air quality and public transit.

A number of proposals will be discussed to help clean up the dirty air along the Wasatch Front during weather inversions, including converting fleet vehicles to natural gas. Ways to increase public transit ridership will also be debated. Vehicles are responsible for more than 50 percent of the bad air during inversions, so getting autos off the road can help. Rep. Joel Briscoe has suggested raising the limit on what local governments can assess for public transit. Most local governments are already at the limit. Raising the cap would allow local governments to put a sales tax increase for transit on the ballot for voters to approve or reject. Thus, the Legislature itself wouldn’t be raising taxes, but would simply allow local governments and voters to decide if they want more transit service.

Healthcare reform and Medicaid expansion.

Low-income advocacy groups are lobbying hard for Gov. Herbert to expand Medicaid for low-income people. The federal government will pay all of the cost for a few years and most of the cost thereafter. Conservatives worry that the federal government is essentially broke and entitlement programs should be reduced, not expanded.

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