Legislative session heats up as budget matters approach
With bills aplenty to consider in both the House and the Senate at the legislature, local representatives from the Carbon County area do have their focus' especially when it comes to things that will affect their area of representation.
While national topics like the No Child Left Behind Law and issues related to abortion top the national and statewide headlines, there are many issues that the areas legislators are working on that come close to the heart of area residents.
"This past week the issues have started to pick up steam," said Brad King, representative from House District 69. "New budget figures will be released in two weeks and the budget process will begin in earnest."
Money, of course is one of the biggest problems facing the legislature. In good years it's hard to budget, in lean years it is almost impossible. This year, while better than last, will still be slim.
"Currently budget hearings are being held on all areas of state government," explains King. "My specific assignment is to work on the courts, corrections, public safety and executive offices. These hearings will continue to be discussed and revised until the last day of the legislative session."
Beyond money topics, there are some other issues of local interest. One of those is HB 51, a bill which would charge extra fees to out of state people for using their recreational vehicles in Utah. King was not against the bill, but was concerned about how it might impact events such as motocross races or jeep safaris that bring a lot of money and recognition to the area.
"That bill passed the house [last week] after it was amended to address local concerns," said King. "The changes included exempting sponsored competitions or safaris and provided for the waiving of the fee for vehicles from states that have reciprocal agreements."
Another bill called the Resort Communities Tax (SB13) passed both the house and the senate last week. The bill, which in simple terms deals with lodging capacity, hurt some parts of King's representation area.
"This bill is of interest throughout southeastern Utah, but has a direct impact on Monticello," stated King. "Because of it's definitions it will result in a significant loss of revenue to the town."
King said he and Senator Mike Dmitrich (Senate District 27) tried to get Monticello exempted but could not get it done.
Representative Darin Petersen (House District 69) had a little bit different take on the issue however.
"The resort tax provision, while hurting a few communities throughout the state, needed to be clarified," he stated on Tuesday.
King says that Monticello will now have one year to increase the number of motel rooms in their town in order to be eligible for the tax revenue.
Over in the Senate, Dmitrich has been working on a number of bills that affect southeastern Utah.
"We have passed a bill that would create a Scenic Byway Commission," he said last week. "The new commission, which would be composed of locally appointed individuals, would oversee designations of Scenic Byways throughout the state. Of particular interest is a portion of Highway 6 between Helper and Wellington where a Scenic Byway Commission would be able to remove the Scenic Byway designation on that stretch of road, which in turn would allow for roadside advertisements."
Dmitrich is also working on a bill that will support increased funding for medicaid recipients in nursing homes.
"Senate Bill 128 would address this issue by imposing an assessment fee that will be reinvested into such facilities," he explained. "These fees would become eligible for federal matching funds which will allow for more money to be invested into nursing care facilities without additional costs to resident of nursing homes."
Another bill, SB 64 would affect rural hospitals, like Castleview.
"That bill would allow for larger dispersion of federal funds to rural hospitals," relayed the senator who supports the legislation. "Rural hospitals are eligible for disproportionate share hospital funds because of their disproportionate share of low-income and uninsured patients. The bill would address this issue by allowing increasing the percentage of new DSH money that is distributed to rural hospitals. These funds have not been available to rural hospitals in the past."
Peterson, while supportive of the bill, had a bit different view.
"SB 64 is badly needed in rural areas and although it only partially fixes the problem, it is a step in the right direction," he stated. "I would assert that our bed reimbursement rates should be more than (in the) metro areas. Instead they are very much lower."
On Tuesday the No Child Left Behind Law debate was finally settled in the house, at least for this year. But in a way, the lawmakers downed the law by leaving it up in the air because of funding. They passed legislation directing school disticts to follow the law, but restricted them from using state and local money to do so. That preserves the federal money attached to it ($106 million) but most school administrators will admit that while they wouldn't want to lose the money, it isn't enough to really make the law effective either.
King attended a meeting with some people from Washington on Friday morning about what he termed "the mutiny," referring to the fact that the Bush administration has been having to send people out to many states to talk with legislators about the issue and to try and get their support on the law. Peterson had a comment on the fact it passed on Tuesday however.
"(The) No Child Left Behind (measure) passed with bipartisan support," he said. "I believe that if you want to follow a better educational model our u-pass seems to be much more realistic and effective."
One issue that has emerged locally with not only a lot of interest, but with rancor from a lot of groups is the stature and power of the Division of Children and Family Services. Local protests in front of the county courthouse, numerous comments in local government meetings and numerous letters and contacts with the media have given this issue long legs and some legislation has been proposed on the hill to change the ways the agency operates.
"These bills will have to be carefully scrutinized," stated Dmitrich. "It is important that the safety of children is not compromised. Recent accusations against the DCFS, which are articulated in some bills addressing the agency, jeopardize the advances that have been made in the welfare of our children. Reform may only take place if it is for the betterment of children and families."