|Normally meeting in the capitol building, the Utah State Legislature met under very different conditions this year as they gathered in the west office building behind the state capitol. The capitol building is presently almost completely gutted while remodeling and earthquake proofing takes place. After renovations are completed, the 90-year-old facility will reopen for business in 2006.|
When the Utah Legislature wrapped up the 2005 session, state lawmakers had allocated more money for roads than in the past.
Rep. Brad King indicated that the 2005 legislative session could be dubbed with a name that fits the state's seemingly main emphasis.
"I think this year's session can be tagged as the transportation session," stated the representative in document released last week. "Much of the surplus from last year's budget and the largest percentage of ongoing new money was earmarked for the state's transportation needs."
King, however, believes that the wants and desires of Utah citizens were not met in the session.
"While most people in the state would concede that we have challenges in transportation funding, I think most would agree with me that transportation is neither the only need the in the state nor the most pressing one," noted King. "We are all aware of the huge influx of children coming into our schools in the next 10 years."
Opinion polls show that most Utahns consider public education as the most important need, but the funding schools received from the 2005 Utah Legislature was not what was expected.
The representative said he was also unhappy with the lack of investment committed to health and human services in the state, particularly in the area of aging.
"Most people are not aware that the next fastest growing population (after children) is senior citizens," indicated King. "The Legislature seems to be less willing to prepare to fulfill our future obligations to this group."
One change at the legislature was the almost complete turnover of the majority party to new leadership.
In an interview last week, King said he was impressed with how the new leadership has been involving minority party members in discussions and decisions.
"I met with the governor one day and, instead of asking about the coal industry as most people do, he was interested in how Helper was doing and wanted to know details about what was happening in Carbon County beyond just the energy industry," explained the representative.
In addition, King said the Utah Senate president and the speaker of the House of Representatives were open and willing to communicate on various issues.
"It led to an efficient and smooth session," stated King.
While the Utah Legislature passes laws and resolutions, everything seems to become a question of money when dealing with state government matters.
King released a document that showed where money from this years session is being put as well as some percentages concerning that money.
According to his figures public education now receives 45 percent of the states total money. Next comes higher education with 16 percent, then health and human services with 13 percent, law enforcement with 10 percent, and general government with 8 percent.
While transportation seems to get a large amount of dollars they actually only get 4 percent of the total money. However, what concerns many people is the increases that some departments received or did not receive.
The largest funding increase in dollars went to capital facilities. State lawmakers approved a 53 percent increase in capital facilities expenditures.
Another important 22.5 percent funding increase came in the area of economic development.
Transportation received a 9.4 percent increase, while public education got 5.6 percent more state funding.
In terms of actual dollars, health and human services got the most new ongoing revenues at $159 million.
Public education was second with $143 million and roads came in third with $90 million.
Higher education got $54 million in ongoing state funds.
The states total budget for the next year will be $8.56 billion. King says that there was a great deal of one time money available that came from increases in collections on income and sales tax from last year. Because of that the legislature gave the Utah Department of Transportation $120 million of that for new roads and road repairs. Another $144 million went to the state for buildings. The remaining $34 million was placed in the states "rainy day" funds and that brought them to within 10 percent of the amounts that were in them before the recession hit four years ago. Those funds had dwindled from a total of hundreds of millions of dollars to only a few million remaining coming into this years session because of supplements the legislature needed to use to shore up the budget in the last four years.
King said that there were a number of things that were passed that could have an effect on the Carbon County area and southeastern Utah in general.
One of those is allowing rural economic zones to be created around airports. This move gives industry that relocates around those areas incentives to not only set up business but to stay put. This opportunity was previously granted to large airports in the state but had not been extended to rural airports. The Carbon County Airport, because of all the open land around it, could benefit greatly from this change.
Another thing that went through the legislature was a change in the codes so that special service districts will be able to add economic development activities to their repertoire of classifications within which they can operate. A county could either add that classification to a present special service district or could create a new one to handle those duties. The limitations to doing that include the fact that a district could not bring in business to compete with present businesses, and they could not levy a tax to finance such operations. There is no word on what Carbon County will do.
Another bill also impacts the production of movies and television shows in Utah. In years long past Utah was a mecca for many production companies with it scenery and small town atmospheres, including places like Helper In recent years other states and even Canada have offered better incentives than Utah for production companies to work within their borders. However this year the legislature made it so that production companies will not have to pay sales tax on items they buy in connection with film production in the state.
"That is a beginning to recapture some of the movie business we have lost over the years," said King.
King also brought up the special session that is being called by the governor in April. He says the main emphasis of the session will be on how to deal with the federal governments No-Child Left Behind rules.
"I hope we will also be able to deal with money for reading programs in the state too," stated King. "But of course in a special session we can only deal with what the governor puts on the agenda."
King says the state will also have some new budget projections by then that can help the legislators deal with where the states financial well being might be headed.
"As for the general session that just passed the outcome was a mixed bag," stated King. "We ended with a balanced budget and retained our rating as an extremely efficiently run state. We addresses some of our difficult transportation funding issues. Our AAA bond rating is intact and our ability to deal with future emergencies was enhanced significantly."
In conclusion, King indicated that the 2005 Utah Legislature failed to adequately address education and did not pay enough attention to aging services.