The Utah Legislature has concluded state government's 2006 general session.
According tp Sen. Mike Dmitrich and Rep. Brad King, the general legislative session was unique from the start.
The $1 billion surplus announced by the media prior to the beginning of the session framed 2006 as the year of plenty, noted the local legislators. But as usual, decisions made and actions taken created winners and losers.
Dmitrich characterized the session as a "mixed bag." While pleased with the budget decisions in some areas, he was disappointed in the distribution of the surplus.
On the positive side, funding for the energy center at College of Eastern Utah for the purchase of the Willow Creek mine buildings and associated land was appropriated.
The project should provide economic development and improve safety in the energy related fields, pointed out the senator.
Dmitrich noted that several small, but important projects he sponsored in the Utah Senate were also funded.
The allocations included $75,000 for the Save America's Treasures project in San Juan County, $50,000 for the Moab Music Festival and $100,000 for improvements at Green River State Park.
The projects are tied to local plans for travel and tourism and local economic development, explained the senator.
According to King, the big winner in the budget battle was transportation. More than $300 million in new state finds were appropriated to highway construction.
There is definitely a need for transportation dollars in the state. But King said it was disappointing that no money was specifically designated to the important transportation arteries in eastern Utah.
There was an effort in the Utah House led by Rep. Ferrin to "earmark" significant funding for U.S. Highway 6, indicated King.
But the effort was defeated in the transportation committee. Attempts to resurrect the measure on the floor failed.
"The bottom line for our area is that the transportation commission needs to hear loudly and clearly what our priorities are in the south-east. The needs of not only Highway 6, but of State Highway 10, U.S. Highway 191, and State Highway 491 must be made clear as the Commission addresses the five-year plan," stated King.
"Mike and I were both disappointed that so many needs in health and human services as well as education were slighted in the budgeting process. With the amount of money on the table we could have solved some long-term challenges faced by the state including public and higher education and especially senior services," said King.
Some 800 plus bills were addressed by this year's legislature out of which 395 passed. One of those has been vetoed by the Governor and 17 more are waiting for his signature.
Some of the bills which were of interest to the citizens of eastern Utah included:
HB 55 which increased the income limits for eligibility for seniors to take advantage of the property tax "circuit breaker". This is the tax credit which qualifying seniors get to mitigate the increases in property taxes each year. Senator Dmitrich was the Senate sponsor and Representative King was a co-sponsor in the House. All low income seniors who own homes or who rent should check with their county assessor to see if they are eligible for this credit. Information usually comes from the county with the property tax valuation notices in August. This bill passed and was signed by the Governor.
HB 15 as signed into law will allow early voting for the fourteen days immediately prior to election day. This measure will be especially helpful to rural Utahns who must travel long distances on election days to vote. It will give them flexibility as to when they can get to the polling place. This should help to mitigate the influence of bad weather on low voter turn-out.
HB 46 establishes an "Energy Advisor" and an energy policy for the state. This is a first step in establishing a meaningful effort to position Utah in its rightful place as we plan for the energy future of the state and nation. Eastern Utah will play a critical role in energy production whether the resource is coal, oil, gas, tar sands, oil shale, uranium or bio-fuels.
HB 109 lowered the amount of sales tax that the state will collect on unprepared food and food products by two percent. This measure will lower the amount that they pay for food and the amount that they are taxed on food, without affecting the cities' and counties' revenue source. The total value of this tax-cut is approximately $70 million.
HB 355 elicited a significant outpouring of e-mails to the senator and representative. This bill would have put strict new requirements on reporting accidents involving Off Highway Vehicles or OHV's. The measure was supported by law enforcement officials throughout the state, but overwhelming opposition to the measure came from OHV users and representatives from the travel and tourism industry especially in southeast Utah. Their contention was that this would negatively affect the industry and as a result hurt the businesses and the economy of rural Utah. The measure failed in the House.
The most significant measure that was not acted on by the legislature, was income tax reform. SB 242 proposed a flatter income tax. It would have reduced the state income tax rate from 7.5 percent to 4.95 percent. The net loss to state revenue and the uniform school fund would have been over $70 million. The result would have been, however a more stable income stream for the future of public education. This bill was debated long and hard, but at the end of the session, it died for lack of a vote in the House.
Governor Huntsman has promised to call a special session in either April or May to finish this important debate. The "flatter" income tax proposal eliminates all tax deductions and credits with the exception of a dependent deduction, a home owner credit designed to replace the mortgage interest deduction and a charitable giving deduction.
Senator Dmitrich said, "While it is likely that some version of SB 242 will pass in special session, no one can now predict the exact outcome or results of the changes."
If you would like to contact Senator Dmitrich, you can do so by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Representative Brad King can be reached at email@example.com.