Utah’s 45-day legislative session opens on Monday, Jan. 22, and there’s a lot for the state’s 104 legislators to discuss until it closes in March. This year’s session might not be as exciting as in past years—several issues slated for discussion include modernizing code and examining the state’s long-term plans. But those big discussions could lead to big changes for the state’s future. Here’s a look at key issues to watch during the 2018 Utah Legislature.
Education funding is always a hot topic during the legislative session, and this year will be no different. Last year’s session was considered a win for Utah’s students when the state legislators boosted per pupil spending by 4 percent. Lawmakers also approved $64 million in ongoing funding to fully fund student growth.
While it’s too early to know whether Utah’s classrooms will see another funding boost this year, Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, former Weber State University president and member of the senate education committee, anticipates funding will again be up for discussion. This comes at a time when Our Schools Now, an advocacy organization for more student spending, is ramping up its campaign. The advocacy group is in the process of gathering signatures to add an initiative to the 2018 ballot that would ask Utah voters to approve a 7/8th of 1 percent income tax increase. If passed, the plan would boost education funding by an estimated $750 million per year.
Back to the session: Millner is hoping to see a funding discussion that focuses on property tax equalization—an issue she has been championing for several years. “A student that lives in a district that has high assessed property values—there’s more money to support that student’s education than a student that lives in an area where property values are less. So how do we bring more equality to make sure students aren’t penalized by where they live?
“Funding of public education and higher education should meet the needs of our growing student populations in both sectors, and it’s always a big issue,” Millner adds. “At the same time, there are lots of needs in the state. We hope to bring the right balance.”
Another topic to be discussed during this year’s session is the recodification of Utah’s education codes. Albeit a bit boring, according to Millner, the code, which hasn’t been overhauled in nearly 40 years, is in dire need of a revamp.
“We really felt that it was time to step back and begin the recodification process, and it will actually happen over a three to four year period. What we do will really set the foundation for more work to be done next year. It’s a huge undertaking, but it’s a substantive step that needs to be taken.” she says.
Attracting and retaining quality teachers is another issue that will again be discussed this year. Millner anticipates that the focus will be on the teacher licensure process. “We’re looking at how to build a strategy for licensure that allows for flexibility in the pathways to becoming a teacher,” she says. “We’ll also focus on performance assessment of teaching skills to make sure that teachers are really able to support effective classroom practices to help students learn.”
For several years running, Utah has been lauded as having one of the country’s hottest economies from the likes of Forbes, Rich States Poor States, CNBC and more. But as the national economy heats up, can Utah keep its competitive edge? Michael Parker, Salt Lake Chamber vice president of public policy, points to the Amazon second headquarters bid as an example of how competition for business is on the rise. Several states, including Utah, are vying to become home to the online retail giant, and the incentives states are using to lure Amazon inside their borders are huge. The question Parker says the legislature needs to address is this: Are we doing enough to keep Utah’s economy growing? Parker anticipates state legislators will have robust discussions about how Utah can continue to attract outside business growth by modernizing its incentives plan, while also supporting homegrown companies.
“For example,” Parker says, “does Utah need to alter its strategy to ensure it has all the tools needed to compete in today’s changing market? The state’s economic development incentives will be discussed to make sure they’re working appropriately, as well as our incentives and other tools. We’ll also see a discussion around workforce development, which is key to economic development.”
Economic development at the Point of the Mountain is of special concern, adds Parker. While the Silicon Slopes area is booming, both in population growth and business success, the area is in dire need of long-term planning. Parker anticipates legislators will devote time to discussing the region’s 20,000 undeveloped acres.
Utah’s tax code is expected to see a major overhaul during this year’s legislative session. Utah’s legislators began working on this weighty topic during this last year’s session and the tax and revenue committee has continued with regular planning discussions in the interim. Because the state’s tax code hasn’t seen a change in decades (although income tax was reformed in recent years), the goal of the so-called tax modernization bill is to ensure the tax code makes sense in today’s economy and is fair across the state, as well as to ensure Utah is competitive with other states, says Parker.
“A key component will also be to increase funding effort for education,” says Parker. “A lot of what happens will stem back to a report issued by former Gov. Olene Walker, which addressed key steps to update our tax code for the current economy.”
Utah’s transportation task force has been meeting regularly since the 2017 legislative session came to a close, and they’ve drafted a giant bill, according to Abby Osborn, vice president of government relations at the Salt Lake Chamber. While the bill’s details remain under wraps, the bill is expected to address the state’s entire transportation network and include a comprehensive modernization plan.
“The whole premise was to look at transportation with a holistic approach and to look at how we fund transportation. For example, we know growth is coming, so how do we address the future needs of transportation? This is really an effort to plan the look and feel of transportation, and to address transportation governance and funding. There’s one bill coming out of the task force, but it might get chopped up into multiple bills.”
Count My Vote
When the state legislature passed SB 54 in 2014, it gave candidates the opportunity to get on the primary ballot if they gather enough signatures, bypassing the caucus system altogether. Since then, the measure has been in and out of the courtroom. Today, the Count My Vote advocacy organization is gathering support for a 2018 ballot initiative that would enshrine the petition signature method into law. Furthermore, a competing ballot initiative, Keep My Voice, is now working to repeal SB 54. While no one has yet to step forward with a legislative plan to tackle these competing initiatives, there have been rumblings that the issue might appear again during this year’s session.
Speaking of rumblings, there’s also rumor that the state legislature might try to pass a more scaled-back medical marijuana bill in order to head off another ballot initiative. In this case, Utah Patients Coalition advocates are working to get medical marijuana legalized through a 2018 ballot initiative. While no specific legislative proposals have been announced, Millner says she’s heard chatter about the issue. “But there’s always chatter about what we could see,” she says.