Lawmakers reach the halfway point in the 2018 session

Utah Legislature is at the halfway point of the 2018 session, and as is usually the case, most of the heavy work remains to be done.

Still, there are a few milestones already reached. 

Through the base budget process, lawmakers have cut around $69 million from current budgets.

That’s not a lot inside of a $16 billion state budget. But it’s more than has been trimmed in base budgets in recent years.

GOP House leaders may have jumped the gun a bit when last week they asked – in a roundabout way – their caucus to approve half of those savings going directly into public teacher pay. Senators immediately poured cold water on that idea, saying that they might not have the funds to do that, but it remains a possibility.

Altogether, House leaders are advocating to give teachers a flat $2,000 pay raise later this year. Not bad. But not a done deal yet.

Still playing out is a delicate political dance between the legislative branch of government, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, and Republican Attorney General Sean Reyes. Various bills, resolutions and constitutional amendments are still pending.

Legislative leaders of both parties want an amendment that would allow the Legislature to call itself into special sessions under limited authority – like an “emergency,” whatever that may be.

Some legislative Republicans also want Reyes to “immediately” file suit against major opioid drug manufacturers and distributors. 

Reyes has balked, saying his office is well on its way to working for an out-of-court settlement with Big Pharma, which would likely get Utah more money in the long run.

A Senate proposal would give the legislature the authority to hire their own lawyers to intervene in lawsuits against the state prompted by bills they’ve passed. That usually is the job of the A.G.’s office, but legislative leaders say they have an “absolute right” to defend those laws.

There are various attempts by GOP legislators to blunt or side-step several of the citizen initiative petitions – whose backers are trying to go around the reluctant Legislature and straight to voters in five different areas.

More money is being poured into public school budgets, trying to blunt the Our Schools Now initiative that would raise the personal income tax and sales taxes slightly, providing $700 million more annually to schools.

Lawmakers are considering a limited Medicaid expansion that does not go as far as the proposed ballot initiative that makes Utah accept full expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Lawmakers thought about, then backed off, running legislation that would blunt a ballot initiative to legalize medical cannabis. That leaves a pair of proposals from Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, that would accomplish a similar goal, but don’t go as far as the initiative. It’s not sure whether lawmakers have the stomach to move ahead with his proposals this year.

Another attempt to provide more protection to racial, ethnic and gay citizens from crimes specifically targeting them is, once again, dead. Sen. Daniel Thatcher brought his “victim targeting” bill that enhanced penalties after someone was convicted of a crime to the Hill for a second straight year, but Senate leaders once again said there was not enough support for the motion, so it’s not going anywhere.

An attempt to stop secret electronic recordings in various settings – including LDS bishop interviews – appears to be dead after public outcry.

A Southern Utah representative, Jon Stanard, resigned suddenly apparently over a sex scandal with a prostitute. GOP delegates in his House District 62 selected attorney Travis Seegmiller to replace Stanard on Monday night. Seegmiller could be seated by Governor Herbert in time for him to finish out the session.

Additionally, Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, was stripped of a committee leadership position and yanked from another committee by House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, for reportedly making inappropriate comments to a woman at the Capitol. 

However, there’s a lot more to do before the gavel falls at midnight in just over three weeks.

As of Tuesday morning, lawmakers had passed just 80 bills in the past 22 days. Last year, they approved 535 pieces of legislation. That means they likely have more than 400 to go, and just 17 working days left before the end of the session to get there.