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2010 Legislative Session Roundup: Utah

Grappling with its own large budget deficit, the Utah State legislature found time to move a number of initiatives, both positive and negative.  Public education and higher education both suffered significant cuts, although not as bad as the worst proposals, with a tobacco tax the major revenue approved to close budget gaps.  

Utah approved a wide range of right-wing "states’ rights" initiatives, including threatening to use eminent domain to exercise control over federal land; claiming to limit federal agency authority in the state; exempting guns made in the state from federal regulation; and declaring provisions of the federal health care law invalid in Utah.  The state legislature also passed a law to require all private employers to use the flawed federal E-Verify system to screen out employees identified as undocumented immigrants.

The legislature did, however, pass a few reforms to improve the state's existing health exchange for high-risk individuals denied coverage by private insurers, and it approved a number of clean energy bills, from promoting green buildings to providing low-interest loans for energy efficiency projects.  It also passed a new ethics law to bolster bans on gifts from lobbyists and broaden disclosure requirements for government officials.  In addition, efforts to ban affirmative action and repeal in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrant students  in the state were both defeated.  A bill supported by progressives to provide health coverage under CHIP for legal immigrant children without the current five-year waiting period was defeated, but legislators said they would discuss it in the Legislature's Health Reform Task Force this summer.

Budget and Taxes:  With a $700 million budget deficit--$400 million due to the absence of federal stimulus funding from last year—the final $11.1 billion state budget imposed $ 90 million in cuts to all Utah state programs.  These included a roughly $10 million funding decrease for public education

  • Tobacco Tax:  Utah passed two key bills imposing steep taxes on tobacco products — the only significant revenue enhancement during the state session, and a measure viewed by legislators and Governor Gary Herbert as critical to balance the budget.  HB196 imposes an additional $1 tax on cigarettes, bringing the total tax to $1.70 per pack, and a tax on other tobacco products such as chew, pipe, and loose tobacco that will reach 86% of average manufacturers’ price-- second place in the nation for the latter tax.  SB259 amends HB196 by eliminating the automatic tax increase on tobacco products every three years. 
  • Public Education:  According to the United Way of Salt Lake, SB2 mandated a $21.2 million cut to the public education system’s ongoing funding; the Legislature as a result was supplemented with $12 million in onetime funding.  As a result, overall, public funding per pupil will be reduced, and local school boards will determine additional funding reductions.  While these cuts are discouraging, they are not nearly as dismal as proposals advanced by State Senator Chris Buttars, who called for eliminating mandatory 12th grade in the state’s public schools and ending all busing for high school students. 
  • Higher Education:  Unfortunately, higher education sustained a much bigger loss in funding: a total 12.3% reduction when added to the 4-5% cut for the 2011 fiscal year.  Funding for higher education has been reduced by $96.8 million relative to 2008, while enrollment has grown by 24,000 students. 

"States Rights" Actions:  Attacking federal authority was a theme of a number of bills passed by the legislature, all of which will likely be struck down in court as unconstitutional:

  • Utah placed itself front and center in the right-wing rhetoric over states’ rights by enacting HB 143, which would supposedly allow the state to use eminent domain power to confiscate federal land.  Proponents of the bill want to allow developers to access the 60% of state land is owned by the federal government, which they argue is rich in oil, coal, and natural gas deposits.  Even state officials and the state Attorney General acknowledge the constitutionality of the bill is questionable, but hope to use it as a vehicle for a legal battle in the courts. 
  • HB146 would supposedly limit the police powers of various federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the US Forest Service, operating in Utah.  The bill declares the state does not “recognize” the federal law enforcement authority of these agencies beyond what is necessary to oversee, use and protect federal land.  Finally, HB146 would encourage the federal government to enter into compacts with state and local law enforcement agencies to help enforce federal law on federally-managed lands.
  • State legislators passed SB11, which supposedly exempts guns made in Utah from federal firearms laws.  
  • The legislature also approved HB67 which would supposedly strike down the provisions in the federal health reform law requiring individuals to buy health insurance coverage.  The state Attorney General also is joining the lawsuits challenging the federal health care reform law.

Health Care:  Ironically, even as Utah sues over the federal law, legislative leaders are already looking to collect federal funding for their health care exchange for individuals considered ”˜high-risk" and denied coverage by private insurance companies.  Approximately 3,700 state residents with chronic illnesses and disabilities currently receive health care through the Utah Health Exchange; another 50,300 are eligible and yet to enroll in the program, but legislative leaders are already exploring how to comply with federal law to collect part of the $5 billion available for state high-risk pools.

The state legislature did pass a few bills in the session to improve their existing health care exchangeHB294 would fix problems in the existing Utah Health Exchange by adding further transparency, limiting the extent to which insurers can vary rates; and limiting the number and range of questions insurers can ask of applicants on the Universal Health Application.  HB25 incorporates consumer billing and payment reform concerns while it also streamlines payment and pre-authorization processes. 

In addition, the state’s Medicaid Medically Needy program for children and pregnant women was fully funded in the state budget

Green Jobs and Renewable Energy:  The State Legislature passed a number of bills to support green jobs and energy efficiency during the 2010 session. 

  • HB145, which allows nonprofits, local governments, and other tax-exempt entities to take advantage of renewable energy tax incentives.  
  • HB318 allows the state’s Energy Efficiency Fund, a zero interest revolving loan fund, to be used for energy efficiency projects in municipal buildings and school districts. 
  • HB45 updates energy codes for new commercial buildings in the state, but provides an important (and unfortunate) exemption for residential buildings.  According to Utah Clean Energy, this bill is a step in the right direction even through it does not update energy codes for new homes. 
  • HB116 clarifies the ability of political subdivisions to use energy savings agreements, and will facilitate access for counties, cities, towns and school to energy efficiency projects. 

Ethics Reform and Regulation:  The state also passed a set of ethics bills to restrict lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, and established an independent ethics commission to review resident ethics complaints about lawmakers.  They include HB267, which limits lobbyist gifts to legislators to $10 and requires legislators to disclose by name any lobbyist who buys them a meal amounting to over $10.  In addition, HB270 requires legislators to disclose financial interests above $5,000 instead of the current $10,000 threshold. 

Employer Verification and E-Verify:   Despite opposition by Governor Gary Herbert to making participation mandatory, SB251 was enacted to require that all the state’s private employers with 15 or more employees participate in the federal E-Versity system to verify their workers have legal immigration status.  SB251 does include a so-called ”˜safe harbor’ provision that exempts an employer from civil liability if they hire an undocumented worker (or other individual ineligible to work in the US) and the employer was registered with and used the federal employment verification database.

Notable Bills That Failed:  On the positive front, the legislature rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have outlawed affirmative action in Utah, while a proposal to repeal Utah's program providing in-state tuition to undocumented college students, HB 428, failed, partly because it was projected to lose $1.5 million in tuition revenue for the state if many of the roughly 400 currently-enrolled undocumented students dropped out of college.

More disappointingly, SB44, which would have removed the five-year waiting period for immigrant children with legal status to enroll in the state’s Medicaid and State Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), did not pass due to budgetary concerns.  However, advocates report the proposal will continue to be discussed this summer in the Health Reform Task Force or the Health and Human Services Interim Committees.