We officially adjourned sine die last Thursday night at midnight. The 2015 Legislative session is finished. Overall I am pleased with the results. Of course, there are some disappointments. We had a number of big issues to address and completed most of them.
If you would like to read more about some of the major issues discussed during the session, please visit the Senate blog at http://www.senatesite.com/home/blog2/
A decision on how we will address Medicaid was not reached this session, but it certainly is not for lack of trying. The Senate passed Healthy Utah and the House developed a new plan called Utah Cares. In the end, we were closer to an agreement than in the beginning.
A couple of the barriers are the political uncertainty in Washington D.C. and budget unpredictability for our state. No one really knows how much it will cost or where we will get the money in our budget. Several legislators want to see how the Supreme Court rules on the King v. Burwell case in June.
In order to do this carefully and make certain that we get it right, we passed a Concurrent Resolution that affirms the Senate, the House and the Governor's commitment to finding a solution that is agreeable to all three. The discussions will continue and when we are done, the Governor will call us into a special session to implement the recommended solution. I continue to be optimistic.
I appreciate the opportunity to represent you in the senate this session. Your comments and thoughts were valuable in the decision making process.
Senator Wayne Niederhauser
On Monday, some of the funding bills were passed. Here are a few highlights:
State employees will receive a 3 percent salary increase.
The weighted pupil unit (this is what the basic funding mechanism for public education) will receive a 4 percent increase and all higher education employees will receive a 2 percent pay increase. Here is a list of some of the bigger building projects that were funded this year in SB 9. http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/SB0009.html
$23 million for renovations to the Romney Stadium at Utah State University; $45 million to renovate Orson Spencer Hall at the University of Utah; $23.1 million to replace the Valley View Residence Hall at Utah State University; $4.4 million to build a state liquor store in West Valley City; $10 million by Utah State University for an addition and renovation of its fine arts complex; $86.9 million to expand the Fourth District Courthouse in Provo; $3.9 million by Salt Lake Community College to build a strength and conditioning facility; $20 million for a student housing project at Dixie State University.
The state property tax has not been adjusted for inflation since 1996. The total inflationary impact on the state property tax is over $126 million dollars. The state property tax is used to equalize local property tax funding between school districts. Districts with the lowest revenue per student have some of the highest tax rates in the state. The state property tax provides relief to these districts. This is a critical problem when you consider the fact that local property taxes are the source of about 40% of education funding. SB 97 will recapture about $75 million through a one-time increase in the state property tax rate and provided those funds to the districts that need it most. Just as with the gas tax, any tax increase is a difficult decision, but the legislature feels that this change is critical to ensure equal funding between districts so that every child has the same funding opportunity to succeed.
This will not be the only increase to student funding that was generated by the legislature this year. In addition to the funding that will be generated by SB97, we allocated $104 million more to the education budget over last year's amount.
The last time we were able to fund at that level was in 2008 and the WPU amount was $2,514. In 2009, the WPU received a 2.5% increase, between 2010 and 2012 there was no increase at all, but then as we pulled out of the recession in 2013 we were able to fund a 1.2% increase and by 2014 and 2015 the increases were 2% and 2.5% respectively. So now, the coming 2016 fiscal year will have a 4% increase which puts the dollar amount of the WPU at $3,092.
The legislature funded more for education overall than was recommended by the Governor if you include SB 97.
Because of this increase, I am confused and disappointed at the dissatisfaction with this year's education funding. We have funded a 4% increase to the WPU, but he is insistent that that is insufficient. The WPU (Waited Pupil Unit) is the term used for the dollar amount that districts use to fund their operation budgets--the portion of the budget that covers teacher salaries and benefits with a small portion going to classroom materials. Even though the name of the fund says "pupil" the fund is actually used for teacher salaries. So as a comparison, this year the fund that pays public employees will receive a 2% increase and the fund for Higher Ed salaries will receive a 3% increase. So of all the salaries that the state is responsible for funding, public education received the highest amount. Could we put more money into that fund? Yes. But we have a constitutional requirement to balance the budget, so if we put more there, we would need to take money from somewhere else.
On Monday we finished reading and discussing all our senate bills working late into the night. We adjourned that night at about 11:10 p.m. it was a very long day. The last days of the session we only consider the bills of the other body, so all of the bills generated from the senate needed to be finished that day--hence the late adjournment.
On Tuesday evening we passed the budget for public education.http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/HB0002.html
HB 3 http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/HB0002.html
containing the appropriations for this year and HB 8 http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/HB0008.html
Within each of the bills you can see a list of where the money was allocated.
Right now, if a city or town incorporates, it is the county's responsibility to facilitate the process and pay the legal expenses incurred by the work. HB 245 would change that so the fees and responsibilities would be taken care of by the town or city. http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/HB0245.html
HB 196 passed making it so that high school students who plan to attend college would be required to show that they are ready for college level math either by completing a concurrent enrollment math class or reaching a certain level on an exam like an AP test, college placement test or the ACT. http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/SB0196.html
SB 296 and SB 297 both passed. These are the bills that broadly protect religious liberty as well as LGBT individuals from discrimination in housing and employment. Here are a few news articles about the bills from both local and national news sources: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/print/865623905/Utah-House-panel-endorses-anti-bias-religious-rights-bill.htmlhttp://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/12/us-usa-utah-politics-idUSKBN0M80AL20150312
This is an extremely important issue, not only in Utah, but across the county. Here is an article describing what other states are doing. As you can see, what we accomplished here in Utah was done very well with all parties brought to the table and all parties making accommodations, proving that even though the result was not perfect they were successful--which is better than what most other states can say.http://www.cruxnow.com/life/2015/03/10/the-growing-conflict-between-religious-groups-and-gay-rights-advocates/
SB 297 would allow county clerks to opt out of performing marriages they did not agree with on religious grounds. In order to protect their clerks, Oklahoma is considering simply removing the state from the marriage business entirely and make marriage just a religious ceremony. I think we have a better solution.http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865624085/Oklahoma-bill-would-abolish-state7s-role-in-granting-marriage-licenses-leave-it-in-clergy-hands.html
This concern of defending the ability to worship God as one sees fit is not a new issue. Orestes Brownson, a journalist during the civil war had some rather prophetic warnings about what happens if a nation allows its protections of religion to fall by the wayside. Here is an article with some of his thoughts:
SB294 sponsored by Senator Adams, would require drivers who drive for Uber or Lyft (a taxi-like service) would require drivers to undergo background checks; carry $1 million in insurance; and require all drivers to register with the Division of Consumer Affairs. It also would require passengers to use an app to pay the driver and the company's app would also show the passenger how much it would cost to reach their destination.
SB 235, titled School Turnaround and Leadership Development Act will give low performing or failing schools an opportunity to have their principal work with experts to help turn the schools around. When school grades came out last year, there were some surprising outliers--schools that were assumed failing schools, but actually had higher grades than anyone thought they would have. As we looked carefully at these schools it was apparent that leadership skills were the key. This bill will help schools that are not performing well receive the help they need to help the children succeed.http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/SB0235.html
HB 48 is a bill that makes a preemptive strike to protect children in the state. The bill prohibits the sale of powdered alcohol. Powdered alcohol comes in small packets and can be added to any liquid or sprinkled on food. One packet contains nearly twice as much alcohol as an average beer. http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/HB0048.html
HB 226 would allow the DAQ (Utah' s Department of Air Quality) to make regulations that are different than the current air quality limitations and requirements put into place by the EPA. Senator Dayton spoke against the bill saying that such changes were unnecessary and Senator Jenkins explained amendments that he made to the bill.http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/HB0226.html
Currently, it is not a primary offense, meaning that you could not be pulled over if you are not wearing a seatbelt. If you were stopped for another reason then you could be cited for not wearing a seatbelt, but now, you can be stopped as a primary offense for not wearing a seat belt. Under HB 79, you would receive a warning for the first few years, but by July of 2018 there will be penalties and a fine, until then you will just receive a warning. http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/HB0079.html
The bill that would have legalized the use of marijuana in the form of cannabis oil failed very narrowly--by a single vote. Here is a link to the final debate. It was a very interesting discussion and if you have an interest in the issue I recommend watching the debate.http://utahlegislature.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?clip_id=18843&meta_id=550613
Odds and Ends:
If you or someone you know would like to be on Utah Wildlife Board, there are two spots opening up for board members. Here is a link to more information: http://wildlife.utah.gov/wildlife-news/1612-two-openings-on-the-utah-wildlife-board-2.html
HERE IS A LINK TO THE STATE LEVEL STERLING SCHOLAR WINNERS. http://www.deseretnews.com/top/3110/0/2015-Sterling-Scholar-award-winners-Wasatch-Front-Region.html