Lawmakers put the wraps on a fairly quiet 45 days

Utah State CapitolThe 2017 Utah Legislature ended Thursday night, more with a whimper than a bang.

The 104 part-time lawmakers had – considering the challenges with which they entered Jan. 23 – a rather quiet 45 days.

That is after they asked GOP President Donald Trump to rescind the Obama-created Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County – and suffered the loss of the twice-yearly Outdoor Retailers Association convention, taking about $45 million out of the Salt Lake economy.

Some of the big lifts accomplished this session:

The Zion Curtain will fall in most of the 300-plus restaurants that currently have the odd-looking, 7-foot opaque barrier that keeps patrons from seeing alcoholic drinks dispensed.

A 10-foot open area from the bar or a 6-foot area with a short wall takes the curtain’s place, all aimed at keeping children from dining right next to a bar.

The state and Salt Lake City and County’s efforts to help homeless folks is reworked and renewed. The city will have two homeless centers, Midvale one, and another center yet to be located outside of the city and Midvale, but in the county.

Utahns will no longer have to have safety inspections on their cars and trucks, with registration fees going up by $1 a year.

On a regular schedule, vehicles still must pass an emissions test – aimed at cleaning up air quality along the Wasatch Front and other areas.

Next year’s state budget will provide nearly $270 million in new monies for public schools, fully funding new student growth and increasing the WPU, the state’s basic per-pupil funding formula, by 4 percent.

Included in that money for teachers is $5 million in ongoing money to pay for classroom supplies. Lawmakers also voted to cover the license renewal fees for teachers, which is a nice gesture to the state’s educators.

Overall, next year’s budget is just over $16 billion.

Teachers who volunteer to work in the state’s poorer, more challenged, schools – and meet certain student productivity levels – can earn $5,000 more a year in special pay.

The state will go on a $1 billion transportation construction program – new roads being built and needed repairs to current roads and bridges.

Utah will be the first state in the nation to lower its DUI alcohol level to 0.5 percent of blood content, down from a national standard of 0.8 percent.

The relocation/rebuilding of the state prison to northwest Salt Lake County got an extra $100 million – as the cost grows to $650 million.

By adjusting the “head” level of the 2015 state fuel tax reform, gasoline taxes will likely go up slightly next year, as the price of wholesale gasoline meets the new kick-in threshold.

Lawmakers will bond for nearly $300 million in building projects. The biggest is a $190 million expansion of the University of Utah Medical School.

Legislators also approved funding a presidential primary every four years to avoid the chaos that happened during Utah’s 2016 presidential nominating contests. Democrats were left to hold their own election and were unprepared for the number of people who showed up. Many were frustrated by the long lines and gave up before casting a ballot. Meanwhile, Republicans conducted their election online, which they paid for themselves. Lawmakers decided to make things equal for both parties when the next presidential election rolls around in 2020.

In the waning minutes of the 2017 session, lawmakers approved changes to Utah’s law criminalizing polygamy, which changed the definition of the practice and increased penalties.

There was a lot of talk — and some votes for, but not enough – of issues that fell short in 2017:

House and Senate GOP leaders brought aggressive sales and income tax reform packages to their caucuses.

In the end, nothing was done – but there will be much study over the interim and in the 2018 Legislature.

Leaders wanted to place the state’s 3 percentage points of sales tax back on unprepared food and lower the 4.75 percent accordingly so there would be no overall tax hike.

They also wanted to decrease the personal income level where various exemptions phase-out. And lower the current 5 percent income tax rate so there would be no overall tax hike.

But House Republicans balked at income tax changes. And while the House GOP caucus was ready last Monday to act on sales tax reform, Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, pulled the plug after new data showed the state really wouldn’t get that much – in either future funding nor base-broadening – to undertake such a big change.

There were no battles over allowing medical marijuana use or gay rights, which tore last year’s Legislature asunder.

Gay rights/hate crimes were not seriously discussed, although legislators killed the prohibition on positive discussion of homosexuality during sex education, also known as the “no promo homo” law. And a few MM bills only made it easier to study the matter for a year or two more.

Falling three votes short in the Senate, after passing the House, lawmakers decided NOT to join the effort for an Article V call for a constitutional convention of the states.

Rep. Merrill Nelson’s resolution could have proven one of the most significant Utah legislative actions in years. But it didn’t happen.
Nelson, R-Grantsville, told UtahPolicy he would not run a similar attempt next year, saying the exhausting effort can be undertaken by someone else in 2018.

Attempts to weaken or even undo the dual-track system for candidates to get on the primary ballot fell short. An attempt to fix the “plurality problem” by establishing a mail-in runoff election in some primary contests was jettisoned, and a proposal to use Ranked Choice Voting in primary elections was torpedoed by the Senate.

In the end, lawmakers passed 535 pieces of legislation, which House Speaker Greg Hughes said was a record.