Lack of money will top the list of priorities at the Utah Legislature when state lawmakers start the regular session next Monday.
"Things don't look any better," pointed out District 29 Rep. Brad King as he sat in his office at College of Eastern Utah on Tuesday. "The lack of revenue will certainly be the big issue on the hill this session."
Last year, the legislators met a number of times in special sessions about changes in revenues Utah is dealing with during a time of economic weakness. The state revamped budgets downward resulting in cuts to many departments and services.
For instance, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff had to cut out a number of unfilled positions in his administration, and one that was filled; one that had caused a great deal of publicity two years ago when it was created was the pornography czar position.
That position was set up under a great deal of scrutiny by both the press and the public in 2000; it was and still was the only position of its kind at state level government in the nation.
Paula Houston was appointed then and is now losing her job. Shurtleff said it might be refilled when finances get better.
But there is more to the legislatures business than just the money. There will be a lot of bills on the hill that King, Darin Peterson who represents district 67 (the western one-third of Carbon County) and Senator Mike Dmitrich will be involved in considering.
Bills which usually lead to laws and regulations, are introduced by members of the house or the senate and are first reviewed by the various committees legislators sit on.
Once out of committee, the proposals go to the floor of the branch of the legislature from which they were introduced, either the house or the senate, for further debate and a vote.
While all bills and issues affect residents of the state, some affect local areas or certain segments of the population more than others. Various bills will affect Price and Carbon County directly.
Here are some of the bills that are coming up on the floors of the two houses of the legislature in the next session that will run from Jan. 20-March 5.
Declining state revenues. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2002, uniform school fund revenues were 8 percent lower than the previous fiscal year and general fund revenues were down 1.2 percent.
Individual income tax collections were down almost 6 percent (the first decline since the current system was established in 1973) while corporate franchise and income tax revenues were almost 32 percent lower.
For the first four months of 2003, combined general fund and uniform school fund revenues are $23 million below target.
Continuing sluggish economic conditions, including weak or no employment growth, flat retail sales, slowing construction activity, and a sagging stock market means that legislators will likely face flat or declining state revenues next year.
Water funding. A portion of state sales and use tax is dedicated to fund water projects. The gubernatorial and legislative task force on alternative revenue sources is reviewing ways to fund water development that do not require the diversion of sales and use tax revenue.
Consumer llending. The business and labor committee has studied several issues in the area of consumer lending including regulation of check cashers or "payday lenders" and predatory mortgage lending.
Draft legislation addresses terms of loans extended by check cashers and examinations conducted by the department of financial institutions.
All-terrain vehicle helmet requirements. Current Utah law requires ATV riders younger than the age of 18 to wear a helmet. In the last 19 years, 4,541 deaths occurred from ATV accidents throughout the United States; 80 of these deaths occurred in Utah.
Experts agree, many serious injuries could be prevented if riders would wear an approved helmet. The key issue is whether the helmet requirement should be extended to all riders.
Charter school funding. Charter schools do not receive the same level of funding as other public schools in Utah. It is expected that legislation will be introduced to modify the funding formula for charter schools to bring their funding level closer to that of other public schools.
Funding of county programs. As demand for locally provided health and human services increase, available funding may be inadequate for the local governments to meet all state mandates.
The funding of state and county health and human services task force is examining the roles and relationships between state and local governments in an effort to alleviate this funding issue and other problems.
The task force will ask for reauthorization to continue studying the issue for another year.
Medicaid. Although the Legislature increased Medicaid funding last year by over $25 million, budget constraints resulted in the reduction or elimination of various optional Medicaid benefits.
The Legislature may consider to what degree dental, podiatry, speech pathology and audiology, and other benefits should be restored.
The Legislature is also facing the possibility of significant budget increases to maintain existing services.
Spend down provision for medicaid. The access to health care and coverage task force recommended legislation to lower the spend-down level for low-income seniors and individuals with disabilities.
Currently, these individuals must spend down their income before they can receive Medicaid benefits.
Spend down requires low-income seniors and people with disabilities with income above the federal poverty level (FPL) to either pay the state or health care provider the necessary amount of income to lower their income level to at least one-half of the FPL before Medicaid benefits may be received.
This legislation only requires a spend down to 100 percent of the FPL.
Oil and gas severance tax. The state severance taxes on oil and natural gas include various incentives that are meant to encourage additional exploration and production. These incentives include credits, exemptions, and a differential rate structure.
One of these incentives, the recompletion or workover credit, is scheduled to sunset on Dec. 31, 2004.
The Utah tax review commission was directed by the Legislature to undertake a comprehensive review of these incentives.
The commission also recommends that all of these incentives should continue.
Drug forfeiture. The law enforcement and criminal justice committee recommended draft legislation property forfeiture amendments which makes changes to the drug forfeiture law that was amended by the passage of Initiative B in 2000.
The bill would allow forfeiture to effectively resume in Utah, enable Utah to receive forfeiture proceeds from the federal government, and provide that a portion of forfeiture proceeds be used for substance abuse treatment.
Statewide initiatives. The Utah Supreme Court recently issued an opinion that declares unconstitutional portions of Utah's initiative law.
The government operations committee recommended legislation proposing changes to statutes governing the initiative process.
Individual legislators may also propose legislation amending the initiative process.
One of the possible changes may be that signature gatherers may not need to meet county signature requirements, but can get enough signatures in one county or region to put an initiative on the ballot.
Sentencing for DUI offenders. The law enforcement and criminal justice committee recommended draft legislation DUI plea restrictions which requires prosecutors and judges to be informed about a defendant's prior DUI offenses before accepting a guilty plea or sentencing an offender regarding a current DUI offense.
Streamlined sales tax project. For the past year, a group of states called the implementing states streamlined sales tax project has been meeting to find ways to simplify the administration of the sales and use tax.
The project is completing its work and will soon make recommendations for the states to adopt. The Legislature may consider these recommendations during the session.
Driver education. Driver education in the public schools continues to be subsidized by public education funds, despite a $2.50 annual automobile driver education fee charged on all vehicles registered in the state.
Issues include whether driver education should be provided in different ways in order to save limited education dollars, whether the private sector or some combination of public schools and private sector should provide it, and how state administration of driver licensing may need to adjust to changes, if any.
Tuition tax Credits. Legislation is being developed to provide a tax credit for tuition payments to private elementary or secondary schools or for donations to scholarship-granting organizations that award scholarships for students attending private schools.
Criteria for involuntary commitment. Current statute requires that in order to be involuntarily committed, the court must determine that a person poses an "immediate danger" to himself or others.
Proposed legislation changes this criteria to "substantial danger."
Definition of mental illness. Proposed legislation tightens the definition of mental illness as it relates to involuntary commitment.
The definition not only modifies what mental illness is but also what it is not, including a list of six exclusions.
Alternative sanctions. The law enforcement and criminal justice committee discussed the value of providing effective alternative sanctions in the criminal justice system, such as drug courts, day reporting centers, and re-entry programs after prison.
Alternative sanctions provide a cost-effective way to respond to the offender's specific needs and reduce recidivism while maintaining public safety and offender accountability.
Funeral industry regulation. The business and labor committee has studied several issues in the area of funeral industry regulation including consumer protection for individuals purchasing funeral goods, services, and preneed contracts, and other potential changes to the laws governing funeral services.