The 2015 Utah Legislative Session by Bill Titles (Part 3) – Education, Public Health and Safety, and Taxes

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With the 2015 legislative session looming, Utah Political Capitol is taking a look at some of the early bill titles that have been released and discussed in order to provide you with a flavor of the upcoming session.

This is part two of a three part series. On Tuesday, Utah Political Capitol took a look at upcoming bills surrounding civil liberties and marriage, the environment, and elections, while alcohol, the economy, and crime were reviewed yesterday.

Education

With what appears to be a growing budget, the issue of education funding will once again be a hot topic. It will not come as a surprise if lawmakers, who have struggled to fund new programs, will start to make a play to promote projects and bolster public and higher education.

Senator Howard Stephenson (Republican – Draper) has two legislative pieces of note: Charter School Funding and Software Program for Public Schools.

Last year, Stephenson was the Senate Sponsor of HB 419, which was signed into law this year. The bill modified the requirements for charter school applications and agreements and put into place a system that required that a board of trustees and local school boards establish guidelines and requirements prior to approval. It is unknown if this year’s “Charter School Funding” is an extension of this, wherein Stephenson can now state that requirements are in place and the funding should follow, but it is clear that Stephenson has been a long time supporter of non-traditional education methods, so it would not be a logical stretch for him to propose such legislation.

In that same vein, Stephenson has been a strong supporter of bringing more software into education, a proposition that have rubbed many in the education community the wrong way. Stephenson has stated that this is the next generation of education while opponents feel that his proposals siphon public funds to private companies. It will be interesting to see what his “Software Program for Public Schools” bill will entail, as Stephenson has been hit or miss with such proposals during leaner budgetary years.

From a higher education standpoint, Senator Aaron Osmond (Republican, South Jordan) appears to be taking on the Utah Science, Technology, and Research (USTAR) initiative, which came under fire earlier this year after a legislative audit found that the former leaders of the university-to-jobs program inflated its impact on the state economy and usage of taxpayer dollars. Because the audit came forward at the start of the session, little could be done to transform the system. It now appears that Osmond plans to shake things up with his USTAR Governance Amendments, which could change the direction of the intended 30 year program.

Public Health and Safety

Another major topic of discussion this year will be health insurance. Governor Herbert has stated that he does not intend to hold a special session to address his Healthy Utah plan, meaning that reform (if it will come at all) will take place during or after the 2015 session. There are, however, other issues associated with health and safety that lawmakers will have to consider.

In 2011, Representative Jim Dunnigan (Republican – Taylorsville) successfully passed legislation that simplified the administrative process of signing up for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Since then, sign ups have increased by more than 10 percent, helping to ensure that more children have access to health insurance during the Great Recession. Now that the economy is recovering, it appears that Dunnigan is looking to review the CHIP program yet again with his Children’s Health Insurance Program Amendments. With all the discussion surrounding health insurance in general, this bill may prove to be important legislation for the 2015 session.

In that same breath, however, Dunnigan has signaled that he is interested in creating and introducing another version of Medicaid expansion separate from Governor Herbert’s Healthy Utah plan. If successful, Dunnigan’s plan would have to be approved by the federal government prior to implementation, a process that took Herbert more than three years to finally achieve, further delaying the working poor’s access to healthcare.

Taxes

The ongoing issue of taxation and government spending is still an important one, even if the state coffers are growing at a rate even higher than expected. Though many lawmakers will use the surplus as an opportunity to fund projects, others will continue to advocate for cuts to help prevent future shocks.

One example of possible cuts is originating from the bill titled Income Tax Amendments, currently being carried by the Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee. This legislation is interesting because of the various tax credits the bill would eliminate if successfully passed.

Section 8 of the bill repeals the tax credits for cash contributions to nonprofit rehabilitation shelters facilities for people with disabilities, high-tech related contributions to public schools, day-training programs for people with disabilities, expenditures related to rehabilitating historic buildings, tax credits for tutors who assist people with a disability, and those who work to preserve, protect, and enhance wildlife areas with a focus on protecting endangered species. Furthermore, the bill would make it easier for those who purchase solar panels to claim additional tax credits.

Though Utah already has a more equitable tax funding structure for education, there are still differences between districts due to property taxes, and Senator Osmond has a plan to change the way education funds are disbursed, providing greater funds to low-income districts while still balancing the needs of other districts. Osmond views greater property tax equalization as a long-term way to bolster students in underfunded districts without harming those in more well-off districts, an effort to increase the overall quality of public education in the state. As you can imagine, Osmond has run into resistance with his plan, however similar bills have advanced further and further each legislative cycle. .

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