TODAY IN ROTARY Lowry Snow, just back from the 45-day Legislative session. noted "it is an honor to serve" the people of Washington County in the House of Representatives. While there may be a need for a special session in the summer months, Lowry indicated he is pleased with the amount of work - 528 bills - done by those elected officials who also have regular jobs, homes and families.
He reminded members in attendance, "Utah is the #1 U. S. state for doing business, #1 in job satisfaction, #1 for volunteerism, #1 for the nation's lowest divorce rate, and #1 for the lowest hours worked per week."
At the end of the session, Lowry's newsletter to his constituents spoke of some of the major bills passed.
Budget and Funding: Once again we balanced the budget. We had some additional revenues this year to allocate, and that helped us support some specific needs in our area as well as statewide needs. Public Education received a major boost to the tune of about $510 million representing a 4% increase to the Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU) which is the largest increase to public education seen in many years. We appropriated $30.5 million for the Dixie Applied Technology College, which allows for the building of a permanent campus on the old St. George airport site. This will not only be a great addition for post high school education in our area, but will provide economic support by providing a campus that will allow for future student growth as we continue to prepare a labor force to meet the growing demands for skilled workers in all areas of applied technology. The Business Resource Centers in St. George and Cedar City will receive funding along with the Youth Receiving Centers. We saw additional funding supporting the arts to benefit the Tuacahn Center and the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Elementary Arts program.
Anti-discrimination and Religious Freedom SB 296 & 297: Senate Bill 296 passed both the Senate the House and has been signed by Governor Herbert. The bill is intended to provide protection for those in the LGBT community from discrimination in housing and employment. At the same time, the bill provides for protection of religious beliefs, and represents a compromise of the two interests. The companion bill SB 297 seeks to further protect religious freedoms by giving county clerks the ability to opt out of performing same-sex marriages, if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. However, if the clerk declines, he/she must make other arrangements by having some other person perform the marriage in order to accommodate all requests. In addition, the bill provides other government employees protection from discrimination or retaliation on the basis of religious beliefs. It also protects religious organizations from being forced to recognize or solemnize a same sex marriage or provide accommodations or facilities to solemnize or celebrate a same sex marriage. I believe these bills represent a compromised resolution of a long standing debate in our state. They are intended to find a balance of respect of citizens’ interests on both sides of the issue.
Healthy Utah and Utah Cares - Medicaid Expansion: Governor Herbert’s plan, Healthy Utah, was revised in the latter part of the session to include a probationary period of two years. In this modified form, it passed the Senate and moved on to the House where it was eventually heard by the House Business and Labor committee, but failed to come out of that committee. The House version of Medicaid expansion was known as Utah Cares, a scaled-down version. This bill passed the House late in the session but the Senate did not take it up for consideration. Accordingly and unfortunately, the question of Medicaid expansion and health care for those in need in our state was not resolved before the end of the session. However, on the last day of the session a bill was passed by both houses in the form of a resolution calling for the Governor to continue working with leadership of both the Senate and the House to reach a compromise that can be voted on in a Special Session in the summer of 2015 that would be called for that purpose. I fully anticipate that the leadership of the 3 branches will come up with an acceptable compromise and we will address this issue within the next few months.
Criminal Justice Reforms: HB 348 provides for several reforms in the way criminal justice is administered in our state. One of the primary objectives of this legislation was to reduce correctional costs by reserving incarceration facilities (jails and prisons) for violent criminal offenders and providing more treatment options for drug offenders, other than those involved in drug trafficking. Also, the bill places more emphasis on reduction of recidivism by doing a better job of supervising released parolees. Incarceration is necessary for certain offenders, but it is becoming increasingly more expensive. This bill begins a process by which the state takes a smarter approach by following the lead of many states who have already adopted these measures successfully.
Transportation funding and Gas Tax: At the end of the session we approved the first major overhaul of transportation funding since 1997. We increased the current gas tax of $.24 per gallon by $.05 cents which will eventually increase to a specific percentage based on a three-year rolling price average of the wholesale price of unleaded gas with a ceiling of $.40 cents per gallon. This issue has been studied in depth by the legislature for several years and while no one likes to see an increase in taxes of any kind, the fact is that our fuel tax implemented many years ago simply has not kept pace with inflation. Revenues have been further eroded as our autos have become more effiecnt. Action needed to be taken or the problem would simply continue to get worse in time and ultimately the fix downstream would be even more expensive. In addition to the fuel tax, we gave a local option to counties to impose an additional .25% sales tax for roads and mass transit, but only if approved by the voters.
State School Board Election SB 104, SB 195 & HB 186: Last fall, Utah’s Federal Judge Clark Waddoups ruled Utah’s process of electing members to the Sate School Board was unconstitutional. Accordingly, there were a number of bills run this session which would have changed the process for electing/selecting members to this important body. SB 104 provided for partisan elections. SB 195 provided for partisan elections unless voters passed an amendment to the Utah Constitution that would authorize the governor to appoint members. HB 186 provided for nonpartisan elections. None of these bills were successful, leaving the issue to be decided by the legislature. I believe the matter will be addressed further during the interim and we may see brought back as part of a Special Session.
Death Penalty Procedure Amendments: This bill reinstates the option of death by firing squad for those sentenced to death in capital cases in our state. The purpose of the bill was not to replace the current use of lethal injection as a means for imposing the death sentence, but as an alternative only in the event drugs used for lethal injection become unavailable. The Governor recently signed the bill into law, notwithstanding his office having received a significant number of communications and signed petitions from thousands opposing the legislation albeit most in opposition to the death penalty itself.
Constitutional Carry Amendments: Bills were opened in both the Senate and the House which would have made carrying a concealed weapon by any adult legal without a concealed weapon permit. The House bill was withdrawn voluntarily by its sponsor Rep. Oda after consulting with the Governor. The Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Hinkins passed the Senate but was not taken up by the House to be considered before the end of the Session.
Here are a few of the bills I sponsored which passed successfully and which I anticipate the Governor will sign into law: