Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Wrapping Up the 2015 Session

So, what did we learn from the 2015 Legislature?

GOP leaders promised some “heavy lifts” – historic-making changes and reforms.

And the majority Republicans in the House and Senate (with some Democratic help) delivered.

Yes, what turned out to be the major issue of the session – Medicaid expansion – didn’t make it.

In the end, House Republicans couldn’t agree with GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Senate Republicans for a compromise.

But as all pointed out Thursday night, Obamacare (for now) still stands.

And it will be decided later this year – as Herbert set up a six-person committee of himself, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox; Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, House Speaker Greg Hughes and the sponsors of the two main bills, Sen. Brian Shiozawa and Rep. Jim Dunnigan, to find the best way to provide health care to upwards of 140,000 poorer Utahns.

Herbert’s Healthy Utah and the House Republicans Utah Cares, both remain on the table – and by July 1, promises Herbert, a solution will be found, a special session called, and action taken on Medicaid expansion.

Here are a few of the other “heavy lifts:”

— SB296, gay and lesbian anti-discrimination protections in housing and employment.

It took leaders of the Mormon Church to shake this issue free – which they did – with an early-session rare press conference.

Then with the groundbreaking compromise was announced, two members of The Twelve showed up a the Gold Room press conference, setting off a swarm of picture-taking.

It was a big win for gay and lesbian civil rights advocates, leaving just a few, arch-conservative naysayers in the dust.

— Gasoline tax reform.

This is a political shocker. In a year with $739 million in one-time and ongoing surpluses, the GOP majority still voted for a fuels tax increase.

The Senate/House hybrid provides some immediate new tax revenues combined with long-term automatic gas tax increases as the retail price of fuel goes up.

Cities and counties will also be able to put before their voters a quarter-cent sales tax hike, the money going to local roads and mass transit districts.

It’s not a final solution – for more fuel tax increases will be needed in order for the state to collect $11.3 billion more by 2040, which studies show will be required.

But it’s a good start. And Republicans kept their promise of no tax hikes in 2015 – the increases start next Jan. 1.

— Public schools get $515 million more – more than what Herbert asked for in new public education funding, but in a very different way of getting there.

Herbert wanted a 6.25 percent increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit – the state’s basic per-student funding formula.

He didn’t get it. Republican legislators gave him 4 percent.

But Republicans also passed a Sen. Aaron Osmond bill that raises property taxes by $75 million statewide to “equalize” the 41 school districts’ capital outlay funds.

That’s about $50 a year on a $250,000 house, more on a business.

But it stops a likely lawsuit (kids in different parts of the state aren’t treated equally in their school facilities), and solves a real problem of the poorer property tax districts being unable to fund new buildings.

When Osmond’s $75 million is added to the 4 percent WPU increase, legislative Republicans say Herbert got more than the $503 million he asked for public education at the session’s start – although the governor may look at this differently.

— An amazing reform of the state’s correction policy and funding.

Rep. Eric Hutching’s bill will cost Utahns a bit more ($15 million next year), but a new philosophy is instituted which will save hundreds of millions of dollars down the road.

Inmates suffering mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction will be treated in rehab, get shorter sentences and be trained and educated to succeed in society when released.

The reform will also allow the state to build a smaller new prison – that will still cost around half a billion dollars.

Here are some things the 2015 Legislature did not do, for better or worse depending on who you are:

— The really weird Zion Curtain stays.

Even though UtahPolicy polling by Dan Jones & Associates found real support for doing away with the restaurant barrier that stop patrons from seeing alcohol bottles and alcoholic drinks being mixed, legislators weren’t going up against the LDS Church on this puppy.

— Legislators didn’t allow the legal use of medical marijuana.

Some of the conservatives feared giving restricted medical use of the drug could bring Utah close to California – where you can get a prescription too easily and smoke dope relatively freely.

— House members decided enough was enough on the “name the state this or that” front, and refused to name the golden retriever the state domestic animal.

One final note: It was of interest to see just how powerful a top member of GOP leadership can be.

Senate President Niederhauser, R-Sandy, doesn’t ask for much. And he’s a pretty quiet kind of guy (he is an accountant, after all).

But Thursday afternoon Niederhauser came into an open House GOP caucus – I don’t remember ever seeing a Senate president in the other body’s Republican caucus – to make a personal pitch for the only bill he’s sponsoring this year, SB235.

It puts $7 million into a new public education program aimed at turning around failing elementary schools.

You may remember that the GOP Senate played hardball with late-Speaker Becky Lockhart’s big-money idea in the 2014 Legislature to put tablets or laptops into the hands of K-12 students.

Lockhart’s plan started at more than $300 million. GOP senators finally told Lockhart she could have $12 million or $15 million for a pilot program, but she declined and let her bill die.

House Speaker Hughes, R-Draper, Thursday spoke in caucus in favor of SB235, said it was a good program and hoped House Republicans would support it.

In the end they did, and it passed 43-29.

Lockhart was a lame duck when she lost her public education reform battle; Niederhauser will still be president come the 2016 Legislature – and he may be looking at the House “no” vote tally on SB235.

In any case, congratulations to the 2015 Legislature.

Sans Medicaid expansion, it really was one 45-day general session for the record books.