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Lawmakers cap session

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

Dust from her first legislative session has settled and one Summit County representative who for years lobbied lawmakers as a single mom is more disappointed than ever in state politics.

"There are forces that are bigger than the democratic process and that’s very frustrating," said state Rep. Christine Johnson, a Democrat who represents parts of Snyderville on Capitol Hill. "I think that some of the other freshmen felt that as well."

Legislators Wednesday night rushed through a flurry of bills capping the 2007 general session and setting an $11 billion budget.

State Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, a Republican who represents western Summit County, conceded that lawmakers don’t fully understand some bills before voting in the session’s heated, waning moments.

"That last night, a lot of things you deal with quickly and some things you haven’t even had much time to spend," Van Tassell said Friday. "It was the most intense thing that I have ever done and if I’ve learned anything, it’s try to get things done before the last night."

Debates bogged down about whether lawmakers should reaffirm the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance or fight to overturn the landmark case Roe versus Wade that helped legalize abortion in the U.S.

"These social-issue bills are just a waste of time when there is so much to be done," said Johnson in a telephone interview Friday. "I had a constituent call me and say, ‘I’m so sorry you had to deal with that pledge bill.’"

Van Tassell says he’d vote against attempts by the Legislature to spend tax dollars fighting lawsuits that could result from an attempt to ban doctors in Utah from performing abortions.

"Utah has spent, back in the [past], $4 million trying to go through and overturn Roe versus Wade," he said. "I don’t think it will ever happen."

Johnson says she is pleased a bill that could have outlawed abortions in Utah should the U.S. Supreme Court decision be overturned died in the final minutes of the session.

"What a huge, enormous waste of money when that money could go to other places like [safety] in Parleys Canyon or the avalanche center," she said. "There are these sideshow bills that are meant to drum up this passionate response in the public."

By focusing on legislation that regulates extracurricular clubs in public schools and providing a meager boost to state Medicaid coffers for health and dental care, lawmakers showed the rights of homosexuals and the poor are not high priorities, she charged.

"[Republicans] are doing what they think is right. They think it’s right to discriminate, they see the world differently than I do," Johnson said. "I think there are some great things about the democratic process but in order to become what it was intended to be requires balance, and we don’t have that balance in our Legislature and we desperately need it."

Far-right conservatives in the Republican-dominated Legislature bully more moderate members of the majority to support bad bills, according to Johnson.

"It’s this herd mentality and that was sort of agonizing for me to watch," she said. "I feel very fortunate to be a Democrat where I know I can represent my constituents without that pressure of deal-making."

Closed Republican caucus meetings make the GOP far less accessible to citizens than Democrats on the Hill, Johnson explained, adding, "I think that’s a noticeable difference between the Democrats and the Republicans."

Though lawmakers now likely must disclose when they attend Utah Jazz basketball games on the dime of lobbyists, Johnson claims their rejection of a gift ban shows ethics reform is needed on the Hill.

"During the session, every day we’re given little trinkets or little gifts, everything from a piece of candy to a book bag and I don’t really need this," she said about offerings from lobbyists. "Clearly, people don’t want their lawmakers to take gifts."

Meanwhile, Van Tassell accepted a campaign contribution from the controversial EnergySolutions last fall. Interestingly, he voted recently to allow the company to expand its radioactive dumpsite in Utah’s west desert without legislative oversight.

By not vetoing Senate Bill 155 Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. surprised environmental watchdog groups.

"If they want to expand outside of that or go to a hotter waste we will be back in the process and be part of that," said Van Tassell defending his vote on SB155.

Johnson insists she doesn’t accept money from EnrgySolutions nor does she visit the former Delta Center since the sports complex was renamed for the radioactive-waste firm. She voted against SB155.

Finally, lawmakers balked at passing bills that could have turned local police officers into immigration agents and that would have revoked privileges for illegal immigrants to receive reduced in-state college tuition.

"As long as our federal government takes a lax stance on illegal immigration we’re caught in between knowing that we need to be compassionate and taking this hard-line position," Johnson said. "I did not vote for any of the bills that would have hurt illegal immigrants in any way."


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