SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Foster Care Foundation will live on thanks to a vote from lawmakers, a new "constitutional carry" bill has been shelved for the year, and a committee vote on a vote on a gay adoption bill was unexpectedly postponed Friday.
Here's what is happening during Utah's 2016 legislative session:
Legislation intended to ensure all married couples are treated equally in adoption and foster care placements of children in the state care got a partial hearing Friday before the House Judiciary Committee, but the matter was held over until next week.
The hearing on HB234, which was last on the agenda and didn't begin until nearly 6 p.m., ended abruptly after taking public testimony when Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, who said he had a seven-hour drive, made a motion to adjourn the meeting. The motion is not debatable.
During public testimony, Laura Bunker, president of United Families International, said the "gold standard" for children is a mother, a father and a marriage.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said he understands that Utahns have "deeply held, sincere beliefs" about families and the issue of same sex marriage. Still, state law needs to reflect the U.S. Supreme Court decision, he said.
HB234 sponsor Rep. Angela Romero said she was disappointed the bill didn't get a full hearing Friday.
"I would have loved to see it pass tonight and go on to the House floor for discussion. But sometimes you have hiccups in policy and in the process and the discussion. All we can do is move forward," she said.
It appears the Utah Foster Care Foundation will live on.
The Utah Legislature's Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee approved Friday a recommendation of $400,000 in ongoing funds to the nonprofit organization that recruits, trains and supports foster parents.
Earlier this week, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt warned that the organization was in danger of closing on June 30 unless it received a state contract adequate to meet its costs. The foundation's funding has been flat since 2004, he said.
Its annual contract with the Division of Child of Family Services is about $2.7 million a year, according to director Brent Platt.
Kelly Peterson, the foundation's CEO, said the organization has not been able to cover operational costs under the contract, so its board has been backfilling the budget with reserves. The reserves have been depleted, she said.
Friday's vote was welcome news, she said.
A bill adding a tax to e-cigarettes that would be used to pay for rural health care needs was introduced Friday, but the sponsor acknowledges it will be a hard sell to the Legislature.
"It's an election year. It's going to be tough," said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield.
Ray said HB333, which has not yet been assigned to a committee, would raise an estimated $10 million to $12 million annually from the sale of e-cigarettes by imposing an 86.5 percent tax on the manufacturer's price.
The bill creates a new Rural Health Care Access account to pay for a three-year pilot project placing nurses and other health care providers at high schools in rural areas with limited health care resources.
"When we did the tour to rural Utah, I found a dire need for medical assistance out there," Ray said. "This was specifically crafted to put the money for a school nurse or an athletic trainer in rural high schools to provide health care for the community."
A bill that would define the parameters for a hate crime and increase the penalties for it passed a Senate committe Thursday before a packed committee room.
Sen. Stephen H. Urquhart, R-St. George, is sponsoring the bill that would replace current hate crime legislation, which was passed in 1992.
The current legislation doesn't spell out any requirements for the labeling of a hate crime, so no one has ever been convicted under that law, according to Cliff Rosky, University of Utah law professor.
The bill defines a hate crime as any act against a person for ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation. It would also increase the penalty for a crime motivated by hate.
Rosky added that under current law, only misdemeanors can be defined as hate crimes, so a homicide case wouldn't qualify.
According to a joint resolution that would have to be passed in tandem with the bill, Urquhart said, speech or actions could only be punished if they are directly related to the crime.
A controversial bill allowing people to carry concealed guns without a permit in Utah won't get off the firing line this year.
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, said he's going to sit on SB97 after his GOP colleagues didn't show much interest in advancing the legislation during a closed-door caucus Tuesday.
"Evidently, the Legislature doesn't feel it's a good time to do it right now with all the controversy," Hinkins said. "I think it's a great time to do it, personally, with all the pushback we're getting from the federal government on gun bills."
Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, cited the ongoing standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon among the reasons Republican senators don't want to consider a so-called "constitutional carry" law this session.
"This may not be the best time," he said.
Meantime, the House passed HB67, which eliminates the prohibition of carrying a gun on a bus with no criminal intent.
Under Utah law, if someone is packing a firearm or another weapon illegally on public streets, it's a misdemeanor in most cases. But on a bus or train, it's a felony. The bill would reduce the penalty to a misdemeanor.
Contributing: Marjorie Cortez, Lisa Riley Roche, Dennis Romboy, Emily Larson
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