In the 2013 Legislature, the big-ticket items allowed for much elbow-swinging policy debate and good old-fashioned anti-fed tough talk.
Draper Prison Blues
Prison funding has always been the red-headed stepchild of legislative funding priorities. But things changed this year, as lawmakers argued they could improve programs and reduce inmates’ chances of re-offending if they could just move the Draper prison elsewhere. Of course, the land beneath the prison is 690 acres of prime real estate that could provide a payday for a developer and, as Senate Bill 72 sponsor Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, argued, a major payday for the state, bringing tens of thousands of jobs to the area and $20 billion in economic benefit over the course of decades.
Relocation would also cost taxpayers as much as $600 million, however, making it a touchy subject on the Hill. SB72 did pass, creating a board made up of members of the Legislature, Draper City, the Governor’s Office and others to take proposals to move the prison and develop the land under it, as well as take proposals from private companies hoping to run the new prison. The board would take proposals but would have to come back to the governor and the Legislature for the final go-ahead.
The option for privatizing the prison caught some off-guard as it was sneaked into a final version of the bill before it was voted out of the Senate. Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, led a last-minute move to keep the board from accepting proposals for private operation of the prison, arguing that a private company would not have a financial incentive to rehabilitate prisoners—or repeat customers, as the case may be—but the bill passed, allowing the board the freedom to pick a for-profit company to run the new prison. Expect to see the names of for-profit prison-operating companies to start appearing on campaign-contribution checks.
The Medicaid Expansion Sneak Attack
President Barack Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act offered states the option of expanding Medicaid fully for the first three years and then going to 90 percent federal support afterward. While Democrats argued that the roughly $400 million in federal funds is Utah’s federal tax dollars coming back home, conservatives saw it as the White House handing out taxpayers’ cash as if it were Monopoly money.
Amid this contentious background, Rep. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, pulled off an impressive bit of legislative jujitsu. Originally, he proposed a chest-thumping message bill calling for the nullification of Obamacare, then at the last minute switched out all the language to make it a bill rejecting Medicaid expansion and removing the governor from the decision. Then he rushed the bill out of committee. He later got the House to pass it with a pitch that had all the elements of an awkward sacrament-meeting talk: generous scripture references, a perfunctory John F. Kennedy quote, crying and an attempt at calling on the brethren with a vague “vision” of rallying voluntary charity care that would provide the same health care to 130,000 uninsured Utahns that Medicaid expansion would.
The bill passed in the House but was amended in the Senate so that the state’s decision on whether to expand Medicaid would wait until a pair of cost-benefit studies are completed. If the governor approves, the bill would come back to the Legislature for funding.
SLC Convention Hotel Bill Checks Out
A bill that would direct sales-tax revenue toward the development of a 1,000-room hotel and a major expansion of the Salt Palace convention space died on the final night of the Legislature. Proponents argued that the bill would bring more convention-going tourists to the city, bringing with them $600 million to the state over the next two decades. But lawmakers said that after the new conventions are gone, the mega-hotel would just clobber local hotels. Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, criticized the plan as a “classic case of government picking winners and losers.” With that, the House voted down the loser bill and declared the free market a winner.
Don’t Need No Education
The Legislature brought in nearly $300 million in new education funding this year, a cause for celebration. Lawmakers also had the opportunity to allocate $10 million to a unique financing program to provide preschool education for at-risk youth in the state. Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, proposed Senate Bill 71, which would court $10 million in private-sector donations that could be paid off over the course of a decade by the State Board of Education if performance standards could be met by the children.
The unique private-public partnership was acknowledged by most lawmakers as a way of closing the “achievement gap” in education—but not everyone agreed that was a good thing. Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, argued that kids just learn differently and that closing the gap “was no noble goal.” The bill was subsequently shut down on the senate floor.
Get Off My Public Lawn, er, Land!
The Legislature drew a line in the sand (mostly in southern Utah) against federal encroachment. In most of the bills, it was a line the feds hadn’t crossed, but that lawmakers were afraid they might.
In anticipation of possible regulations against cattle overgrazing on the Escalante National Monument, the Legislature created with House Bill 382 an “official grazing” zone in and around the monument. They also gathered $300,000 to pay a Washington, D.C., lobbyist to argue against the feds reintroducing wolves back into the state, despite the fact that there seems to be no plans to do so.
They also passed House Bill 155, making it so that federal agents, such as U.S. Forest agents, could be charged with “impersonating a peace officer” if they tried to cite or detain someone violating state law or county ordinance.
House Bill 164 would also allow local authorities to make improvements to federal lands they believe are mismanaged. The bill’s language is vague, but suggests that local authorities can repave roads and trails, for example, if they feel they might be dangerous for users. The problem is that the question of who owns which roads is the subject of multiple costly ongoing legal battles in the state. If a county paves over a trail and sensitive archaeological sites and/or wildlife habitats in the process, it will invite the same kind of costly lawsuits that southern Utah counties lost in the early ’90s. This kind of “bulldozer diplomacy” has been damaging to the land and taxpayer resources, without being very effective. Luckily, the 2013 Legislature also added another $1 million for reserve legal funds to be used in court battles with the feds.
ETHICS & ELECTIONS
In response to the still-developing scandal surrounding Utah Attorney General John Swallow—who, at the very least, received consulting fees from a third party involved in an alleged scheme to protect an Internet businessman from a Federal Trade Commission probe—Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, sponsored Senate Bill 83, restricting those in the executive branch from moonlighting in other jobs, especially when the outside work conflicts with state work.
Another bill passed on the final day of the session would allow for the lieutenant governor to appoint another agency to investigate campaign-finance-disclosure irregularities other than the Attorney General’s Office. Currently, the Utah Attorney General investigates those claims, which is problematic when, as in the case of Swallow, outside groups demand that his own campaign-disclosure documents be investigated.
House Bill 91, which died in the final hours of the session, would have allowed Utah to be among the few states that allow people to register to vote on Election Day. While the bill was touted as a good way to try to get apathetic eligible voters off the couch and out to the polls, other lawmakers argued that if they were too lazy to register before Election Day, they probably shouldn’t be voting in the first place.
During winter inversions, the Utah Capitol appears to be poured into a Jell-O mold, an image not lost on Utah lawmakers. Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, proposed creating a pilot program to allow for free public transit in January and July as a means of cutting back on carbon emissions. The bill never made it out of committee.
One measure that did pass late in the final day of the session allows Questar to raise user rates by as much as 8 cents a month to fund the construction of more natural-gas fueling stations in the state.