Rep. Kraig Powell prepares for legislative session
As Republican Rep. Kraig Powell, Heber City, prepares for the upcoming Utah legislative session, he said he can only hope it goes more smoothly than last year. In 2015, he said, he experienced the most difficult session of his time in office.
"2015 was the most contentious year since I’ve been in the Legislature, just because there were so many hot-button issues like Medicaid, which we have met several times on and not been able to solve," he said. "And then with 2016 being an election year, with a presidential election, there has been a lot of bleed-over of those issues into Utah. For example, we were recently asked to take a position on Syrian refugees."
Polarizing issues, Powell said, made 2015 a year of high tensions and "more partisanship in the Utah Legislature than I’ve seen in my six years in office." Powell said the new Count My Vote primary election system will be a big change for the Legislature, as signature gathering to get on the primary ballot began Monday.
"This election uncertainty really changed the dynamic and occupied the thinking of many in the Legislature," he said. "Especially in the House, where I serve, you have one eye on your constituency and one eye on potential challengers. So when the rules of elections are changed I think it really causes people to become nervous about all political and legislative issues."
Powell said the new system means legislators will have to be thinking about their campaigns during the entirety of the session.
"We will essentially be campaigning during the session for the first time because the signature-gathering phase began Jan. 4," he said. "So during the session we’ll be in campaign mode."
Powell said while many in the Legislature are calling the new system a "distraction," he is undecided. It could be beneficial, he said.
"I’m torn," he said. "I like that we are more accountable to voters and will be watched more closely. But there is the distraction of time. I have to gather 1,000 signatures to appear on the primary ballot. So there will be times during the session where I’m out evenings and weekends knocking on doors. [It’s time-consuming] and we have to be careful not to let it distract us."
As for what he has planned for the session, Powell said he plans to introduce several bills, including a proposal to raise the tobacco purchasing age minimum from 19 to 21.
"Research shows so strongly that most people, if they’ve not already started smoking, are unlikely to begin after age 21," he said. "And youth of whatever age, when they do get cigarettes illegally, they often get them from people around age 19 or 20. It’s an important public health measure to protect people and to save on healthcare costs."
Powell said he also plans to introduce a bill that would create a separate property tax levy for charter schools, which he said is necessary because charter schools currently eat into the tax money that is meant for traditional public schools.
"Right now each school district is required to cover 25 percent of the cost of charter school kids who live in their districts," he said. "This takes away money from traditional public schools. Essentially what we’ve done is create a system where a good share of the money we know is needed to fund public schools is being taken away. This bill is asking the Legislature to be honest and upfront about charter school funding. If we’re going to have a separate system, charter schools, then we ought to have a way to pay for it."
Another bill Powell is planning to introduce has to do with drones, though he is quick to point out his is not the only bill or even the most comprehensive. The impetus for Powell’s bill came in August of last year.
"There was a wildland fire here in the Wasatch just above Deer Creek Reservoir, and there was an incident where we had to ground planes because of drones flying over the fire," he said.
Powell said he looked into it and found that offense was not specifically listed in Utah’s code.
"There is a general offense for interfering with firefighting operations but nothing specific to drones," he said. "I talked with Utah Forestry and they said yes, they would welcome more specific language penalizing on drones. The bill calls for different severities based on the amount of interference it creates or amount of property damage or loss of life. It could be a misdemeanor up to a felony."
Powell said he expects widespread support for some of his bills and challenges on others.
"Each of these bills could be controversial. I think the drone legislation will be well-received as long as it’s not redundant," he said. "The tobacco and charter school issues are going to be difficult."
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The large fireworks shows scheduled for July 3 and July 4 at Park City Mountain Resort have been canceled because of worries about fire risk and drought conditions.