Utah’s Senate Leadership Reviews Their 62nd Legislature

L to R: Peter Knudson, Gene Davis, Wayne Niederhauser, Ralph Okerlund, Stuart Adams (back to cam) Robert Gehrke

Today, on day 45 of a 45 day legislative session, The Utah Republican Senate supermajority leadership reflected on their considerable efforts at creating and overseeing a $15.3 billion state budget, on the laws they’ve created and/or revised, and on making their state the first in the nation to drop the legal blood alcohol limit while driving to 0.05. Wayne Niederhauser, Utah’s Senate President, gathered his Senate majority and minority leaders and his executive appropriations chairman to discuss their efforts with reporters for one of the last times before adjournment Sine Die at midnight.

Big Policy Changes

“There were some big policy changes made this year,” said Niederhauser, as he began the enumeration of these policies with the state participation in finding adequate solutions for Utah’s homelessness crisis. Dedicating over $10 million to assist local “political subdivisions,” (especially those in Northern Utah, Salt Lake City, and Salt Lake County where the problem is most pronounced).

Legislative leaders also mentioned an ongoing effort to put people “into a situation where they can assimilate back into society,” as productive participants with jobs and recidivism counseling.

President Niederhauser would go on to mention waivers potential Medicaid waivers as a solution from the federal government to address healthcare now that a new administration is involved in Washington, D.C. Waivers had been applied for under the Obama administration, amounting to funds that the state has already paid to Health and Human Services that has not made its way back to the Beehive State since Utah did not opt to expand Medicaid.

Cannabis Research Funding

Having spent two previous sessions debating the potential of medical cannabis as an analgesic, only to table further action, Utah approved HB 130 – Cannabinoid Research, providing clinical research funding on the use of cannabinoids as a possible intervention for the nationwide opioid addiction crisis.

The research bill combines Utah monies with federal research dollars to allow for methodology development and data collection over the next two years. Senator Stuart Adams, (Republican – Layton) called the measure, “a way that we’ll be able to acquire good data,” on the subject. “No other state has taken that approach,” he said, referring to the way that the bill will fund conclusive research to inform those who will ultimately decide on making cannabis products available to Utahns. Niederhauser added that the research would yield information about possible dosage amounts and specific elements of the “whole cannabis plant” that could help those suffering chronic pain and other ailments.

Blood Alcohol Limit Revision

Widely reported due to its first-in-the-nation level, Utahns will soon be subject to a legal blood alcohol limit of 0.05 while operating a motor vehicle, instead of the national norm of 0.08. “With our tourism sector growing rapidly, the proper narrative about alcohol is ‘Come to Utah, where the roads are safer,'” Niederhauser said. He was indicating that the narrative needed to be changed for the better now that the alcohol limit law had been approved and is now awaiting Governor Herbert’s signature. The idea that alcohol behavior on the roads was making Utah an unsafe place to live and work was disputed by reporters with the data that Adams had been using to justify passage of the bill. They pointed out that the Utah Division of Public Safety has a website with recent statistics indicating that speed and distracted driving were bigger killers on Utah roads than alcohol. Regardless, Utahns will not be subject to the new limit on December 30, 2018.

Education Funding

Chief among the accomplishments lauded by Utah’s legislative and executive leadership is more than $230 million put into education funding, for an increase of the “weighted pupil unit,” (a factor explained here) used by public school districts with latitude given to superintendents to determine local budgets and funding application. It is hoped by many in this pupil-heavy state that the additional funding will help to stop the exodus of teacher resources at a time when teachers are exhausted and the profession is taking economic hits statewide. Additionally, charter school advocates compete for available public dollars at a time when their budgets become thin due to competition for parental endorsement. Finally, a measure to provide teacher bonuses to those who perform well in disadvantaged schools is expected to provide additional incentives for teachers to teach.

Other Measures

Leadership pointed to newly arranged grant availability for “Hospitality and Tourism Management careers,” through SB 264 – Outdoor Recreation Grant Program in what some viewed as a backhanded acknowledgment that the state is becoming the “Outdoor Recreation Capital of the World.”  Earlier in the session, resolutions requesting the “rescinding and resizing” of recent National Monuments in Utah had pitted the sizeable Outdoor Retailers Association against Utah’s politicians who seek to open-up some of the state’s 20 million acres of public land for various commercial uses.

Asked why the effort to address air quality and to advance the production of so-called “Tier-3 fuels” had taken more than one session, the response from Senator Okerlund (Republican – Monroe), was that public pressure and the time to develop an appropriate use tax mechanism. The result, SB 297 – Refinery and Use Tax Exemptions Amendments, is designed to motivate refineries to implement plant and production upgrades, and was a successful this year. “In that bill, the businesses don’t qualify for the tax exemption until after they demonstrate performance,” Okerlund said. Cynics noted that Tesoro Refining hadn’t needed the tax incentive to begin their effort at plant and production changes which would ultimately offer better air quality to the Wasatch Front’s deadly air inversions.

All-in-all, many long-time observers noted that the 62nd legislature seemed to be running “smoother” than in previous sessions, “That could be because the Senate is working so well with the House,” said Niederhauser. “There’s better process because we’re getting along better.” The Senate President had said that the two chambers had taken the time to educate one another on the measures that were important for funding considerations. That observation prompted the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Gene Davis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) to observe that there was “more focus on issues instead of ideological contests.”

With less than eight hours before mandatory adjournment at midnight, Thursday, a report issued on the deliberations underscored that cooperation with a tally of 254 House sponsored bills and 207 Senate sponsored bills that had made it through the lawmaking “sieve,” representing 57% of the total number of bill introduced by the Utah lawmakers this year.

One of the last bills to be introduced and passed is the catch-all budget authorization known to insiders as the “Bill of Bills,” which will delineate the remainder of the state’s $15.3 billion dollar budget.

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