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Day 2: Legislature tackles education, taxes, liquor laws, campaign contributions

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SALT LAKE CITY — On the second day of the 2015 Utah Legislature Tuesday, lawmakers began work on several education bills. They also discussed bills dealing with tax increases, liquor laws and campaign contributions.

Lawmakers take first look at public education budget bill

Lawmakers began working to determine budget appropriations for Utah's public schools Tuesday, with a special focus on finding ways to improve financial efficiency.

Utah's public education base budget bill is drafted at 100 percent of last year's ongoing state revenues, including more than $2.7 billion for education.

But top lawmakers have temporarily reduced allocations to all appropriation subcommittees by 2 percent as part of a budget effectiveness review. The exercise, they say, will help legislators evaluate existing funding programs, stress-test the existing budget, and find areas of potential savings.

"This is a productive exercise we hope will yield some insights into how money can be better utilized," said Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, House chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Bill would increase incentives for early high school graduation

Lawmakers are hoping to increase the incentives and resources for students to graduate early from high school through Utah's Centennial Scholarship program.

The program awards students who complete high school at or before their third quarter of their senior year. The earlier students graduate, the higher their scholarship amount becomes.

Currently, the maximum scholarship amount is $1,000 for those who graduate during their junior year. SB33 would double the current maximum amount to $2,000.

Bill sponsor Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said more effectively notifying families of the scholarship and paths for early graduation would reduce the need for remediation and increase student participation in concurrent enrollment — taking high school courses with college credit.

Bill seeks to improve civic engagement among students

On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee unanimously recommended a bill for Senate approval that seeks to improve civic engagement among students.

Under SB60, before public education students receive a high school diploma, they would be required to pass the same test immigrants must take to become naturalized U.S. citizens. The same would be required of Utahns earning a GED.

Bill sponsor Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said the requirement would begin to address a "crisis" of civic apathy and ignorance among young people as they transition to adulthood.

"We are living in a nation where we believe so strongly in our right and obligation to vote," Stephenson said. "And yet what we find is that most citizens cannot name the three branches of the government.

"I believe that liberty doesn't necessarily mean that we have to win it through war, but we certainly have to win it through knowledge," he said.

Business community supports tax increases for schools, roads

A group of Utah business leaders Tuesday said it's time for lawmakers to invest in both education and transportation, even if that means increasing taxes.

But the group, which included Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Lane Beattie, as well as the heads of Prosperity 2020 and the Utah Transportation Coalition, did not offer specific recommendations for raising income taxes or gas taxes.

"The bottom line is we are simply asking them to look at all of the options on the table," Beattie said during a news conference at the state Capitol. He said that could mean boosting one or both taxes.

"We're asking them as any business does to step back, look at both of them, and find out where we get the longest and most solid economic benefit," Beattie said. "If it requires some of both, great."

Senate committee passes bill to beef up liquor law enforcement

A bill that would divert fines from alcohol violations to the Utah Attorney General's Office for increased enforcement cleared a Senate committee Tuesday.

SB72, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, would make up to $180,000 available annually for an assistant attorney general to prosecute cases such as selling alcohol to minors or violating terms of a state-issued liquor license. The fines now go to the state's general fund.

House committee holds bill setting limits on campaign contributions

A House committee voted Tuesday to hold a bill that would place limits on how much could be contributed to political candidates.

The sponsor of HB60, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, urged members of the House Government Operations Committee to back his bill because Utahns want to see campaign contribution limits.

But committee members questioned what impact the limits, based on recommendations by former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s Commission on Strengthening Utah's Democracy, would have on so-called "dark money."

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