When the Utah Legislature opens for business on Jan. 25, budget concerns will be the primary focus for the 104 legislators. The state is dealing with a deficit that could approach $1 billion, a financial hole that will require significant reductions for pretty much every state agency—how significant will be determined by the Legislature's use of other tools, including tax increases and tapping the Rainy Day Fund.
For the general public, here's the kicker about budget battles at the Legislature: Most of the major decisions are made behind closed doors, which is where legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert hold their negotiations. That means aspiring citizen lobbyists may seemingly have a less-than-optimal chance to make an impact on major issues.
There are a only few budget areas that really depend on citizen lobbying, especially services for disabled people, which probably would be even more poorly-funded if legislators were not being continually rammed (at times, literally) by wheelchair-bound activists. Also, some issues that people can rally around require a relatively small expenditure, but those are not typically decided by the major players during budget negotiations.
So, for those of you interested in heading to the Hill but lacking a cause that really gets you excited, City Weekly is providing you a list of issues to rally behind. Some of these are specific bills targeting the status quo, while others are broader issues with either multiple bills or, in some cases, no specific bill but some buzz. These also appeal to all shades of political thought, because citizen lobbyists certainly are not just in the progressive camp.
Will the Utah Legislature Increase the Tax on Cigarettes?
1. Taxing tobacco products: Last year, this proposal garnered a lot of attention, but never really got the needed momentum because Utah legislators were leery of raising any taxes. They are equally leery this year, especially after Gov. Gary Herbert issued a "no new taxes" challenge with his proposed budget. But a tobacco tax is one that many conservative constituents can stomach because there is the argument that it will discourage people from starting to smoke. However, it will have the most significant impact on low-income people who do smoke, because they will still likely smoke — it's not exactly an easy habit to break — even at the higher costs. Two bills have been filed, SB40 by Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, and HB196 by Rep. Paul Ray. Although both bills have similar methods and the increases are substantial in both, it seems like Christensen's bill is the one that will be debated this session.
Wasatch Front Air Quality
2. Clearing the air: Tackling this issue could go a few different directions, depending on your interests and political leanings. For the liberals, it could mean supporting amendments to traffic laws that will encourage biking, especially HB91 by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, R-Holladay. That bill would allow bikes to legally run red lights of the intersection is clear, among other things. For conservatives, clearing the air may be turning out to support the development of nuclear power in the state. No bills have been filed for nuclear power, but a few legislators have requested bills to be drafted, so the issue will probably come up at some point.
Gun Rights: Are You Threatening Me?
3. Gun rights: Most of the bills filed are supporting expanded gun rights, including SB11 from Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, which would not require the registration of guns and ammunition manufactured in the state and HB78, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, which would allow concealed-gun permit holders to brandish their weapons if they feel threatened. The latter bill is one ripe for grassroots activists on both sides to get involved, since this is an always exciting debate about the extent of power granted to people through the Second Amendment and how it should be balanced against public safety.
Salt Lake City Democrat Brings Attention to Gay Rights
4. Gay rights: With the exception of the Eagle Forum, the most well-organized citizen lobbying group on Capitol Hill may be those fighting for equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gendered community. At the heart of that effort is Equality Utah. Like last year, the Common Ground initiative is the focus for the group, but the real center of attention may be Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City. First, she is pregnant with a baby she is carrying for two gay men, which puts the issue of gay adoption front-and-center. Additionally, she is sponsoring HJR4, a resolution denouncing the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Resolutions carry no weight, but the debate on this bill would certainly be interesting. The real lobbying effort for this one would not be passage, but simply debate, so the focus of the efforts would need to be the House Rules Committee. Oh, and for those opposed to gay rights, contact the above referenced Eagle Forum.
Will the State Opt-Out of Federal Health Care Reform?
5. Health care reform: Sure, the fight is really on the national level, but the Utah Legislature is not sitting idly by. A couple of bills have been numbered, and there are more that could come out. Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, has HB67, which would allow the state to basically opt-out of federal health care reform. There are also a couple of possible tweaks to the state's own health care reform efforts, which is centered around a state-run registry for small businesses to shop for insurance. Finally, for those simply wanting to kick legislators in the shins, send your love to Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who has requested a bill to be drafted addressing legislator's benefits. Last year's version of that bill would have forced legislators to shop for health insurance on the private market instead of enjoying the state-provided health insurance. Simply mentioning the bill could get legislative leaders in a huff, so it won't make you any friends in high places. But it will get you noticed.