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Julie Schwartz on April 2, 2009 - 11:12am
Lawmakers adjourned Utah's 45-day regular session, having spent most of their time balancing the state's nearly $10.9 billion budget . In order to keep Utah out of the red in 2009 and 2010, legislatures had to cut state programs across the board and utilize $561 million from the Federal stimulus package. Despite budget woes the legislature did find time to pass hundreds of pieces of legislation, including the most sweeping changes to the state's liquor laws in 40 years, which eliminated a much criticized system under which customers were required to fill out an application and pay a fee before being allowed to enter a bar. All in all the 2009 legislative session in Utah produced mixed results. Some bills produced small steps forward, but on the whole, the session fell short of creating necessary reform.
Clean Energy and the Environment: This year, Utah legislators introduced a mix of good and bad legislation when it came to environmental protections and clean energy. In the end, the most movement came in the area of renewable energy legislation.
- H.B. 430, which passed, provides tax incentives for renewable energy generation and manufacturing. Unfortunately, on the last day of the session, the bill was amended to include nuclear power as a renewable energy resource.
- Also enacted was S.B. 76, which addresses the renewable energy transmission barrier by creating a political subdivision of the state tasked with the development of a master plan for renewable energy production and transmission infrastructure. This subdivision will have the ability to apply for and seek out federal grants, as well as bonding authority to pay for transmission lines for renewable energy.
- Senate Joint Resolution 1 urges the Utah State Energy Program and municipal governments and to collaborate on the development of model renewable energy ordinances to streamline the development process at the local government level.
- Recognizing the need to train the growing clean energy workforce, Senate Joint Resolution 10 supports the establishment of an Alternative Energy Training Center in Beaver County - an area with high concentration of existing, upcoming and potential renewable energy development.
- On the energy efficiency side, House Joint Resolution 9 recognizes energy efficiency as a priority resource and urges state and local governments and utilities companies to promote and encourage all available cost-effective energy efficiency and conservation.
Health Care: In what state advocates see as a good first step to reform health care in Utah, legislators passed H.B. 188. The Utah Health Policy Project viewed the legislation as falling short of comprehensive reform, but characterized it as laying a foundation for broader reforms in the future. The bill, among other things, increases transparency around insurers and brokers, creates limited benefit and 'mandate-lite' packages (COBRA alternative option), increases reporting requirements so that the impact of such changes can be monitored, expands the portal to include defined contribution, and creates a risk adjuster board that will develop a plan for a new risk adjustment mechanism in the defined contribution market and a methodology for implementing the defined contribution market. Some experts have concerns with the limited benefit / high deductible and mandate-free health care plan that is created under the bill, since it leaves the people most unable to pay for medical care or comprehensive insurance with poor coverage. Additionally, H.B. 178 , passed on the last day of the session will add new, local provisions for laid off Utah workers to enroll in COBRA, the federal regulation that allows laid-off workers to keep their workplace-based medical insurance coverage going by paying the entire premium.
Although it did not pass, S.B. 225, which would have removed the 5-year waiting period for legal immigrant children from enrolling in Medicaid or CHIP, had strong legislative support
Immigration: Advocates and legislators failed in delaying the implementation of S.B. 81, an omnibus immigration bill passed last year which would force local law enforcement officials to serve as federal immigration authorities, and which mandates usage of E-verify by state agencies and contractors. S.B. 81 which is set to take take effect in July will cost $1.7 million to implement, not including the cost of potential lawsuits. Additionally, H.B. 64 passed, which will create a joint federal-state strike force to focus on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, as did a resolution in support of a state-run guest worker program.
On a more positive note, H.B. 208, which would have prevented undocumented students who receive in-state tuition rates from working during college, failed. Other anti-immigrant bills which failed including removing the driving privilege cards issued to undocumented drivers, and denying business licenses to applicants without citizenship documents.Voting Rights: This session, progressive lawmakers in Utah proposed various bills that would mitigate barriers to voting — including legislation which focused on same day voter registration and advocating for a non-partisan commission to create fair legislative boundaries that are not gerrymandered. Unfortunately, the initiatives actually enacted mostly attacked voting rights, often creating problems where none existed before.
- Voter ID: H.B. 126 requires state-issued photo ID at the polls, making this one of the most onerous laws in the country. Additionally, in order for an indigent person to obtain a free ID, they have to authorize the state to examine their tax records to verify that they earn less than the federal poverty line.
- Early Voting: S.B. 24 repealed a requirement that counties of the first class provide at least one early voting polling place within each Utah State Senate district in the county and that at least one of those early voting polling places be open on each day that early voting is offered. This measure is likely to make it more difficult for people in certain areas to vote early.
However, one bright note was the passage of S.B. 25 which allows the lieutenant governor to create an online system for voter registration.
Miscellaneous: Legislation was introduced to provide housing relief, ethics reforms and equal rights for members of the LGBT communities. Unfortunately, some of these key reforms were not passed and the legislation that was enacted failed to deliver the comprehensive reform needed.
Housing: S.B. 260, the Housing Relief Restricted Special Revenue Fund, disburses $10 million for the Home Run program which can be used to purchase newly built homes, as well as a more meager $1.8 million culled from the federal stimulus package to go toward counseling services for residents facing foreclosure. Some affordable housing advocates are crying foul, saying that while the grants will assist 1,600 homebuyers, nearly 10 times that number of people—15,000 in Utah—currently face foreclosure, according to a recent study from the University of Utah.
Ethics: S.B. 162 prohibits retiring or defeated politicians from using leftover campaign cash for personal expenses. In the past, vague Utah laws have mandated that a candidate may keep any leftover campaign money as a kind of parting gift. Some observers worry that S.B. 162 still may leave loopholes for politicians looking to cash in on their hard-campaigned-for dollars. S.B. 156 requires disclosure of gifts over $10 and meals of more than $25, with the exception of events in which an entire caucus, task force, committee or legislative body is invited to dine. "This is a good disclosure bill," said Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City. "However, I don't think we're going far enough in terms of what the public wants" -- namely a gift ban. Similarly, H.B. 345 which many thought would prevent former Utah lawmakers from returning to the legislature as a paid lobbyist for one year is now being interpreted by the Lieutenant Governor's office as saying that former lawmakers are allowed to return to the state house if they do so on behalf of themselves or for a business with which they are associated, unless the "primary activity" of the business is lobbying or governmental relations. This loophole has frustrated the bill's sponsors and advocates. Additionally, the state failed to pass a bill that would have established an independent ethics commission to monitor state-level public officials.
Equality: Despite citizen support, far right lawmakers voted down a package of bills, entitled the Common Ground Initiatives introduced into the legislature with the goal of offering certain equal rights to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.
Resources:Utah Health Policy Project Bill Tracker