Upcoming Bills in the 2014 Legislative Session – Part 3: Education, Government, and Health and Human Services

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Editors note: This is the third of a three part series related to reviewing the upcoming legislative session. Part 1 was released Wednesday and addressed Abortion, Pollution, and Alcohol.  Part 2 was released Thursday and addressed Equality, Firearms, Elections, and Business. Bill titles do not present specific policy, just the topic discussed within the yet-to-be-released legislation.

As hard as it may be to believe, the 2014 Legislative Session is rapidly approaching, and lawmakers are beginning to get their ducks in a row—preparing bills they hope will become the law of the land. Though it is early to definitively state what the session will look like when festivities begin on January 27, a look at the names of the early bill titles being released does give some indication of what various lawmakers wish to propose. By law, all bill titles must accuracy reflect the content of a bill.

Education

It is impossible to have a legislative session without a slew of education related bills, and this year looks no different. Though there are several enticing bill titles to choose from, a few in particular should pique your interest.

Senator Pat Jones’ (Democrat – Salt Lake City) “School Funding Through Income Tax Revisions.” Jones made waves weeks ago when she announced that she intended to do away with the income tax credit related to raising children or, at the very least, reducing the amount of money the state will reimburse parents for having children come April 15th. Jones argues that the bill would finally move Utah out of 51st place (dead last in the nation) for public education funding and address important issues such as overcrowded classrooms, falling test scores (particularly among minorities), and poorly paid teachers leaving the state. However, in the state with the most children per capita, resistance is near certain.

Another hot topic over the last year has been the idea of school grading. A law passed by the legislature in 2011 requires every school in the state be graded on a scale of A to F and, in September, results came back.  Many have raised strong concerns with both the methodology and the nature of the results, and lawmakers were quick to announce they intended to take a second look at how schools grades were calculated. “Statewide Assessment and School Grading Programs Amendments,” from Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper), will likely address this issue.

One lawmaker to keep an eye on is (still relatively new) senator, Aaron Osmond (Republican – South Jordan). During the 2013 session, Osmond seemed to be attempting to please as many people as possible on the education front—advocating for programs aimed at improving student performance while, later in the year, advocating that compulsory education may need to go the way of the dodo. This upcoming session, it appears Osmond is attempting to walk this balancing act yet again by sponsoring both the “Student Leadership Grant” and the “Parental Right to Educational Freedom” bills. The first seems to be a repeat of prior legislation that died on the last day of the legislative session, while the second might be an attempt to push for charter schools.

It also appears the issue of school prayer will become a hot button issue in 2014. Senator Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross) is sponsoring a bill titled “Religious Freedom for Students” while Senator Stewart Reid (Republican – Ogden) is sponsoring a bill titled “Religious Freedom Instruction Requirements.” Of course, at this point any guess about the bills’ language would be pure speculation, but it appears that both Weiler and Reid are looking to address policies related to religious doctrine being preached in schools.

Government

The recent government shutdown appears to have had a dramatic effect on lawmakers. Though many conservatives on the hill have been advocating for greater independence from the federal government for years, the shutdown may give supporters of state’s rights the ammunition they need to push new legislation through the state house.

Two bills, in particular, speak to this fact: “Contingent Management for Federal Facilities” from Representative David Lifferth (Republican – Eagle Mountain), and “Governmental Immunity for Trust Lands Administration” from Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan). Lifferth’s bill will most likely attempt to  create a bridge for Utah to take over control of federal land in Utah—a longtime goal of both Lifferth and Ivory—in the event that the state’s national parks are forced to close due to a future shutdown. An emergency session was held during the October shutdown to temporarily fund national parks with state tax dollars. Ivory’s bill title is far more vague—it’s possible Ivory is attempting to further take control of federal lands in order to access natural resources (like gas, oil, or coal), or make the public input process from the public more difficult…or it could be much ado about nothing. What is certain is that this will be one worth keeping an eye on. During the 2012 session, Ivory was one of the key lawmakers (along with Representative Mike Noel (Republican – Kanab) and former Representative Ken Sumsion) behind the so-called “land grab” bills. Lawmakers have argued that taking over federal land and then selling it would allow for more money to go into the state education fund, while opponents of the bills have argued that attempts to seize control of federal land are unconstitutional, cost Utahns millions of tax dollars to defend in court, and even if successful would have a near-immeasurable effect on education.

“Privatization of State Government Functions” from Representative Kay Christofferson (Republican – Lehi) will, assumedly, seek to move some government functions out of the public sector in order to contract out the services.  Though it is uncertain what functions Christofferson will attempt to move to private companies, a recent national trend has been to move prison services and/or schools into corporate hands.

Citizens’ level of access into their government also appears to be a forthcoming issue during the 2014 legislative session. Two bills to watch are “Government Records Access and Management Act Amendments” from Representative Dan McCay (Republican – Rivertion) and “Open and Public Meetings Act Amendments” from Senator Deidre Henderson (Republican – Spanish Fork).

The Government Records Access and Management Act, or GRAMA, was the source of major controversy in 2011, when lawmakers attempted to reduce public access to records with the now infamous HB 477, sponsored by former Representative John Dougall (R), who was just elected as the state auditor. Public outcry was so massive that lawmakers, less than a month after they overwhelming approved bill, voted to repeal the law. Since then, the threat that lawmakers would attempt to reinstate the provisions outlined in HB 477 have loomed over the Capitol Building.  Of course, the vague term “amendments” could mean anything under the sun. Unfortunately, until anything is released, the media and public can only speculate, and nothing more.  What is certain is that Utah Political Capitol will be keeping an eye on this one.

On the flip side of the GRAMA debate is Senator Deidre Henderson.  Last year, Henderson introduced SB 283, a bill that successfully created a board to investigate how to open up GRAMA records to the public while ensuring proper privacy. With a track record towards public involvement, Henderson’s  Open and Public Meetings Act Amendments could be an expansion of the efforts she started last year.

Health and Human Services

Health and Human Services is often a catch all for the state, and has a very mixed history.  This year, a few bill titles could prove to be of interest. Senator Reid has said in the media that he intends to raise the legal age to consume tobacco from 19 to 21. “Age Limit for Tobacco and Related Products” from Reid appears to be the bill he will use to move the legal limit. The public health issue will probably see little resistance, aside from lawmakers who are strong advocates for personal freedom. Depending on who carries more weight, it is quite possible that a persons first legal smoke will happen at the same time they can have their first legal drink (ironically, three years after they can decide to go fight in a war or exercise their right to vote).

Representative Jim Nielson (Republican – Woods Cross) appears to be repeating his efforts from last year with “Adoption Records Access Amendments,” the same name that one of his bills had in 2013. In last year’s bill, Nielson was attempting to release original birth certificates of adopted children who were adopted before 1942, and allow birth mothers to release information if they so choose though the Utah State Office of Vital Statistics. Advocates argue that to deny an adult information related to who their birth parents are is unfair to the adopted child—not only from a psychological standpoint, but also in an age of increased genetic testing and knowledge of family history, poses a health risk. Opponents of the bill argue that the mother likely had good reasons to conceal their identity when putting their child up for adoption, and specific request for privacy should be respected.

Finally, there is “License to Harvest Road Kill” from Representative Dixon Pitcher (Republican – Ogden). Yes, it appears that Pitcher wants to create a licence to harvest dead animals on the side of the road. Why? We will surely find out…perhaps the Honey Boo Boo lobby is strong in Pitcher’s district.



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