Legislature caps ‘meanest’ session in years
During the Legislature’s most contentious session in recent memory, a nearly $1 billion budget surplus this year pitted House members against senators and legislators against the governor in a battle over which programs should receive funding boosts and how much of the extra cash should be given back to taxpayers.
"This is the meanest session I have ever been in, in my 14 years," said Rep. David Ure, a Kamas Republican who represents most of Summit County. "Mainly, because of all the money here and there are so many special-interest groups trying to get that money."
Public schools received a chunk of the surplus. Lawmakers approved a six-percent increase in the amount the state spends per student, Park City School District Superintendent Dave Adamson said.
More than $7 million was earmarked for a voucher program for students struggling to fulfill some of the requirements necessary to receive a diploma, he said, adding, "that’s going to be very different from anything we’ve ever seen."
Adamson praised lawmakers for refusing a tuition-voucher bill that would have provided tax credit for parents with children enrolled in private schools.
But two education bills sponsored by Sen. Chris Buttars, a West Jordan Republican, may have garnered the most attention.
Though senators approved Buttars’ bill that would have required teachers to present alternatives to the theory of human evolution in their classrooms, House lawmakers, who weren’t ready to meddle in the affairs of school districts, scuttled the legislation.
The House also refused final debate on a bill sponsored by Buttars that could have prohibited schools from hosting extracurricular clubs that cater to gay students.
Meanwhile, a push to repeal a law that allows children of undocumented immigrants living in Utah to receive in-state tuition costs at public colleges and universities also failed.
"That sucker’s dead," said Ure, who often advocates for Latinos on the Hill.
Lawmakers also stopped legislation that would have done away with driving privilege cards for illegal immigrants.
Also among the session’s winners were ski resorts. Changes to Utah’s skier-liability laws could make them less vulnerable to litigation.
"It’s been very interesting a little frustrating when we have so much money and yet we’re going to have still a lot of unmet needs," said Rep. Ross Romero, a Salt Lake Democrat who represents areas in Snyderville. "It’s just a difficult effort to try and balance all of the competing needs."
He praised lawmakers, however, for passing stiffer penalties for those who commit hate crimes.
Romero, who is finishing his first term, expects to campaign for office in 2006.
"I certainly intend to still be in public service," he said, not commenting about which office he would seek.
A plethora of bills this year related to planning and zoning caught the attention of Summit County and Park City officials — most notably, the abandoned, pro-development Senate Bill 170.
"I think we came away relatively unscathed, not murdered, just assaulted," Park City Mayor Dana Williams said.
While praising the defeat of SB 170, Williams chastised lawmakers for passing a bill that allows a state ombudsman to intervene in planning disputes at a party’s request.
"[Developers] can, in essence, say they want a time out," Williams said, adding that the legislation will "further delay development agreements, not expedite them."
Some lawmakers’ intentions to remove sales tax from unprepared food also concerned local officials. During the session’s waning moments, the Legislature approved a two-percent reduction in sales tax the state collects on food, which takes effect next year.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. intends to pursue eliminating the food tax entirely, which Coalville Mayor Duane Schmidt says would be "catastrophic" to his city’s budget.
"We can’t do without it," Schmidt said Friday.
Though food tax was reduced, at midnight Wednesday the governor and lawmakers had failed to deliver on their promise to cut taxes by $160 million.
Food-tax cuts totaled about $70 million, but the Legislature must reform Utah’s income-tax structure to provide taxpayers an additional $70 million in relief. Roughly $20 million worth of tax cuts for businesses were approved.
The Legislature will likely meet in a special session this spring to debate the final piece of the proposed tax-cut package.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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