Utah’s 45-day hectic Legislative Session will get started on Monday, Jan. 25, and there’s a lot in store this year. From the highly contentious Medicaid expansion to air quality issues to alcohol updates (if rumors are true), the state’s 104 legislators will have a lot to debate until the session closes March 10.
Utah legislators will have a $560 million surplus to dole out for fiscal year 2017, including $380 million in new tax revenue plus $180 million in one-time tax revenue. Though not as large as last year’s $760 million surplus, the $560 million is a sign that Utah’s economy is growing, says Senate President Wayne Niederhauser. Unfortunately, the state’s projected sales tax revenue is down $39 million, which Niederhauser says is primarily due to the growth of online shopping.
To prepare for the session, Gov. Gary Herbert released his proposed budget, which serves as a set of recommendations for the Utah Legislature to consider. Herbert’s $14.8 billion budget proposal includes allocating 70 percent of new money toward education. His budget proposal contains no tax increases or new debt, and pays off $350 million in existing debt.
Deciding what issues to prioritize and where to allocate funds is never an easy task for Utah’s lawmakers—and this year is no different. Here are some of the top issues to keep an eye on during the 45-day session:
Improving Utah’s K-12 and higher education tops nearly every poll asking Utahns about what the Legislature should prioritize each year, and the 2016 session is no different. A recent poll by Envision Utah showed Utahns overwhelmingly support a 5 percent increase in school spending through 2020. With a $560 million surplus to allocate during this year’s session, Niederhauser says the legislature will likely increase education spending.
He’s excited to see a reemergence of the late House Speaker Becky Lockhart’s education technology plan, which would have brought tablet computers and other tech devices into the classroom. “[Lockhart’s] bill was a couple years premature, but it was the right policy, so I think we’ll see it again,” he says. “These devices will enhance education, and teachers will also receive training on the new technology.”
Gov. Herbert’s budget proposes a $422 million spending increase in public and higher education, bringing the total new money for education over the last five years to $1.7 billion. It also includes a 4.75 percent increase ($130 million) in the Weighted Pupil Unit, which is the main source of funding for public education, and would amount to approximately $206 more dollars for every Utah student.
Medicaid expansion was one of the most contentious issue of the 2015 Legislative Session. Last year, the House quickly nixed Gov. Herbert’s hard-fought Healthy Utah plan and instead opted to advance the Utah Cares plan. But the Utah Cares plan didn’t make it past the Senate, and the session closed without a Medicaid deal reached. Utah Access Plus, debated in a special session last October, also failed, receiving only seven votes.
With no Medicaid compromise reached or within sight, the hot-button issue is slated to reappear again this year.
Planning for Utah’s anticipated population growth is a key issue. Utah is expected to reach 4 million residents in 16 years, and the entire population is on track to double by 2050. “Population growth will put a stress on our schools, roads and buildings. This is all expensive stuff, and we need to make decisions now to preempt that,” says Niederhauser.
Water planning, Niederhauser says, is the No. 1 infrastructure issue he’d like to see addressed. “We really haven’t done anything about water infrastructure as a state—we’ve left it mainly up to local governments to deal with it, but it’s coming to a point where the state’s going to have to step in and help participate on how to deal with water issues policy-wise and money-wise to meet the needs of the growing population and our growing water needs.”
Herbert’s proposed budget includes allocating $6.5 million to study water use throughout the state, including possibly funding water projects such as the Lake Powell pipeline.
Despite Utah’s growing infrastructure needs, Niederhauser hopes the Legislature doesn’t do any bonding to finance projects proposed. “We’re in the good times in comparison with the Great Recession, and that’s when we should be paying off debt, not entering into debt.”
Each year, Utah’s notorious inversion fills the sky just as the Legislative Session rolls into action, and each year the Legislature says it’s going to do something about it. This year, Niederhauser hopes to see legislation pass that incentivizes low-sulfur fuel use.
Also known as Tier 3 fuel, low-sulfur fuel has been shown to significantly reduce tailpipe emissions. The EPA has already mandated the use of Tier 3 cars and fuel by 2017, but Utah’s primary refineries aren’t required to comply until 2020. Niederhauser hopes the Legislature will find a way to speed up the process. “That’s where we’ll see the big gains,” he says. “We want to do things that have significant impact, and low-sulfur motor fuel is the big gainer. That’s one priority that we’re looking at because it makes some big gains in cleaning up the air.”
Water heaters will also be on the agenda. Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, says he plans to sponsor legislation that will prohibit the sale of water heaters that do not qualify as ultra-low-nitrogen-oxide (low-NOx) emitters. If passed, his plan will be effective Nov. 1, 2017.
Gov. Herbert’s budget plan also addresses Utah’s air quality. He is proposing $6.2 million to monitor air quality and $250,000 for research, as well as a $500,000 rebate program to incentivize homes and businesses to replace pollution-emitting equipment and wood-burning stoves.
Count My Vote
County My Vote, another contentious issue, is expected to appear back on the docket during this year’s session. The Count My Vote law was ruled partially unconstitutional by Federal Judge Nuffer, who sided with the Republican Party’s claim that it shouldn’t be forced to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in its primary. But Judge Nuffer also ruled that the signature gathering provision is indeed constitutional.
Though Niederhauser doesn’t anticipate the Count My Vote law will be repealed, he says it needs some tweaking. “In light of the recent court decision on unaffiliated voters, there’s some changes that need to be made. The signature thresholds need to be changed to be fair with more minor parties, like the Constitutional Party.”
After finally deciding to move the prison from Draper to an area near I-80 and 7200 West in Salt Lake City, the state now must decide what to do with the current facility. “I suspect we’ll pass a prison authority that will oversee the future development of that property working with Draper City and others,” says Niederhauser. “It’s a valuable piece of property and we want the state to have the financial benefits of it.”
As one of Utah’s most divisive issues, even talk of adjusting the state’s alcohol laws is sure to cause an uproar among Utahns. While no specific proposals have been announced so far, Niederhauser says he’s heard “rumors” that the issue will be up for debate again this year.