Day 3: Legislature discusses anti-discrimination legislation, funding education and transportation

Day 3: Legislature discusses anti-discrimination legislation, funding education and transportation

(KSL File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — During Day three of the 2015 Utah State Legislature, lawmakers debated issues ranging from anti-discrimination laws to providing more funds for education and roads across the state.

House speaker says anti-discrimination, religious liberty won't be fast-tracked

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Wednesday he doesn't expect lawmakers to move quickly on protections for both the state's LGBT and religious communities.

"This isn't an issue that's going to be fast-tracked or easy. It's going to be a challenge, whatever we do," Hughes said a day after statements were made on the issue by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

On Tuesday, members of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a member of the Young Women General Presidency called for the state to preserve religious freedom while also protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

LDS Church leaders stressed that the government should ensure that people are not forced to perform medical or other services that go against their religious beliefs if others are readily available to provide those services.

But Hughes said during his daily media availability that while there should be some religious protections for those who work for faith-based institutions, others need to do whatever is called for in their job.

Legislative committee looks at changes for higher ed capital funding

Members of the Office of the Legislative Auditor General recommended improvements Wednesday to how the Legislature funds the operation and maintenance of higher education buildings.

Many of those buildings are built with money from private donors and independent sources, but the state is often asked to provide funding for the operation and upkeep of those buildings.

Auditors found that in some cases, operation and maintenance funding sources weren't identified before the buildings were built. Some institutions constructed buildings using private donations hoping that the state would provide for operations and maintenance, though such appropriations weren't yet authorized.

Auditors also determined that the records being kept on how the buildings are funded were inadequate.

The second recommendation suggests that the Legislature direct the Utah State Board of Regents to maintain a funding record for all of Utah's higher education buildings, regardless of whether they are funded by the state.

Auditors also recommended that the Legislature create an appropriation unit to better track operation and maintenance appropriations.

Study: Utah's decaying local roads require more funding

City and county officials convened Wednesday to discuss the findings of a new study that shows a drastic need for more local road funding across Utah.

The Utah Foundation study released Wednesday, authored by research analyst Mallory Bateman, found that 82 percent of city respondents and 95 percent of county respondents consider their current transportation funding is lacking.

State funding — the Class B and C Road Fund — covers only about one-third of local transportation costs, and the lack of funding is causing half of local roads to deteriorate, according to the study.

Kaysville Mayor Steve Hiatt, representing the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said Utah government leaders and legislators need to recognize that the state's transportation needs are "outpacing" current transportation funding.

"Right now, we are at the tipping point between benefiting from the sound stewardship of past investments and playing catch-up," Hiatt said. "The need is clear, but what is yet to be seen is if (residents), local officials (and) the state Legislature will stand up and make tough decisions needed to allow the transportation systems of our communities to grow and thrive."

Technology would help teachers give faster feedback to students, lawmakers say

Legislators unanimously recommended a bill for House approval Wednesday that would provide English and writing teachers with computer programs to help them give more timely feedback on their students' coursework.

HB69 asks the Legislature for $1 million to provide supplemental software that can grade students on technical components of English language arts and writing, such as vocabulary, punctuation and grammar. It would also assess students' reading ability and comprehension level.

"I do not in any way see this as replacing a great English teacher, replacing a teacher who does literature, who has great discussions and teaches writing," said bill sponsor Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City. "But this would be a supplemental tool. We also know that the most effective tool is individualized learning, and that's exactly what this kind of software can do for students."

Rather than a statewide implementation, the $1 million appropriation would provide resources for fourth- through 12th-grade teachers who want to use a program in their class. Those who do would have to apply through the Utah State Board of Education, according to the bill's floor sponsor, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

Last year, only 42 percent of Utah students scored proficiently in language arts on SAGE, Utah's year-end student assessment. But software programs that provide them with more timely feedback in reading, language arts and writing could be helpful for schools that are falling furthest behind, according to Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns.

Bill seeks to set rules on formation of new school districts

A bill that seeks to set rules on how new school districts can be formed sparked a lengthy debate as it was presented Wednesday to the House Education Committee.

HB93 would implement a policy similar to one used in the formation of new cities, commonly known as the 5 percent rule. That is, if a school board were to split, the new school board would not be allowed "cherry pick" the most financially successful parts of the community to build their tax base, said bill sponsor Craig Hall, R-West Valley City.

Projected income in the new school district would not be allowed to exceed the projected costs by more than 5 percent.

"In other words, the new (school district) can't take more than its fair share of the tax base," Hall said. "This bill is about making sure that in the creation of a new school district, we don't end up with a situation where one geographical area has, for example, 70 percent of the tax base with 30 percent of kids. Or even worse, we shouldn't end up with 70 percent of the kids with 30 percent of the tax base."

The bill was criticized by several community leaders who said it would dilute the leverage cities have to encourage school districts to cooperate with city leaders.

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