Legislature kicks off ’09 session on Monday | ParkRecord.com

Legislature kicks off ’09 session on Monday

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

The biggest challenge facing state legislators in 2009 is balancing a budget plagued by tax revenue that is dwindling, said state Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, a Vernal Republican who represents Park City.

Income tax is off by 12 percent and sales tax is down 10 percent, he explained.

"Unfortunately, we’re continuing to see the economy slow down," Van Tassell said.

But some lawmakers cannot agree with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. about how to implement budget cuts.

"We’re trying to come up with that balance that is livable for everybody. Any reduction is always tough and everybody’s got their favorite programs," Van Tassell said. "The big divide is whether to take ongoing funding that has been set up for highway construction and move it to general funds. Then bond for highways."

As budgets are slashed, money earmarked for tourism advertising outside the state could decrease, Van Tassell said.

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"Tourism is economic development and to sacrifice that completely for some of the other programs is pretty short-sided," Van Tassell said. "I anticipate that we’ll continue to do funding for tourism and advertising to keep people coming to Utah."

Still, Bill Malone, executive director of the Park City Chamber/Bureau, said tourism-advertising coffers could take a hit. Right now the money is helping fund a television campaign on the East Coast to lure New Yorkers to Utah slopes.

"I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic, I’m realistic," Malone said in a telephone interview Friday. "We’ve seen what the governor’s budget recommendation is for tourism funding and it’s a significant reduction from last year."

Ethics reform may also be necessary on Utah’s Capitol Hill to fix the Legislature’s image, which is tainted by scandal. A former state representative is facing charges of trying to get his competition in the state treasurer’s race last year to drop out.

Republican Mark Walker violated a state law that prohibits offering an inducement to a candidate to drop out of a race, prosecutors claim.

The scandal helped fuel a political firestorm on Capitol Hill. The 2009 general session starts Monday and the debate about ethics reform could begin with a bill sponsored by Rep. Christine Johnson, a Salt Lake City Democrat who represents the Snyderville Basin, which would ban lawmakers from receiving gifts from lobbyists.

"A lobbyist, principal, or government officer may not offer or give a gift valued at more than $5 to any public official or member of any public official’s family," Johnson’s legislation states.

Guv: Do away with private clubs

Whether lawmakers will enact meaningful reform to Utah’s quirky liquor laws in 2009 still remains to be seen. But Huntsman is so supportive of repealing private-club memberships that the governor is drafting a bill himself. It’s widely understood that his motivation is to increase tourism.

The current law requires club patrons to purchase memberships by paying a state-mandated fee to enter the drinking establishments, which serve liquor and beer.

"Maybe this is the year where some changes can be made in the private clubs That’s the one thing that could have the greatest impact on dispelling the myth about Utah liquor laws," Malone said. "It’s a peculiarity and I think it’s one of those impacts that is hard to quantify at times."

Van Tassell said he would consider supporting repealing the membership requirement.

"If we can get some things together to protect against underage drinking, I think I could support that," the senator said.

Huntsman is against a separate proposal to hide liquor bottles in restaurants, saying it would be a step in the wrong direction for working to increase visitation to the state. A senator wants restaurants to mix cocktails away from the view of customers.

"Hopefully we can put some common sense to it and come to something that serves everybody," Van Tassell said.

Associated Press contributed to this report.