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SALT LAKE CITY — State legislators discussed electronic cigarette legislation, voting procedures, English teachers getting more resources for students and Utah's uninsured population during the Utah Legislative session.
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From 2011 to 2013, e-cigarette use rates tripled among teens in Utah, according to a Utah Department of Health report that began tracking the behavior only a few years ago. The same report indicates that one in five kids in Utah reports regular use, which is one of the highest use rates in the nation among states that track the behavior of teens.
"The e-cigarette industry is addicting our youth," said Dr. Scott Barton, and obstetrician and chairman of the Utah Tobacco Free Alliance. "Big tobacco knows this is their ticket to a next generation of smokers."
He said that while the manufacturers of electronic cigarettes and their nicotine vapor cartridges want people to think the products are safer than traditional cigarettes, "there are many carcinogens and irritants in the vapor. It's not water vapor like you've been told."
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is planning to back legislation that would penalize smoke shops and other retailers for selling e-cigarette products to minors.
While the practice is already prohibited, there are no statewide licensing requirements to sell the products, meaning anyone can sell them. With no licensing requirements, there are no compliance checks and few consequences for selling to teens.
Ray and other lawmakers are also supporting a tax on e-cigarettes, which is written into the governor's budget proposal. It would bring tax on the products up to what is charged for the purchase of traditional cigarettes, 87.5 percent of the value.
English and writing teachers in Utah may get more resources to help them give faster feedback to their students.
HB69, which has already passed the House and its education committee, was unanimously approved by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, was an English teacher for more than 30 years. She said teachers in the subject are struggling to provide quick correction and guidance as class sizes increase and as the amount of papers to grade stacks up.
"It's the dilemma of all writing teachers — to get feedback to students in a timely way," Moss said.
The bill would appropriate $1 million in ongoing money from the education fund to license software that can give individualized feedback to students on technical components of writing, such as capitalization, spelling, punctuation and grammar.
Moss said teachers could participate on a voluntary basis and use the program to provide supplementary instruction. She estimated the fund would be sufficient to allow half of all Utah students in fourth through 12th grade to participate.
A House committee favorably recommended two bills Wednesday that would help ensure that all Utah voter ballots are counted and not turned away for technicalities within the state's voting system.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring HB219 and HB220, which both add legislative clarity concerning which ballots are eligible to be counted.
HB219 provides that as long as a ballot is clearly post-stamped as having been received by a post office before Election Day, then it is timely and therefore eligible to be counted.
Chavez-Houck said the clarification needed to be added because current law calls for a postmark, which is stamped at the Salt Lake City Post Office. So, she said, at times when ballots are mailed from more rural post offices, it may take at least a day to receive the postmark from the Salt Lake City Post Office.
Also approved was HB220, which would essentially correct an oversight from a 2014 bill that created a three-year pilot program that allows Utahns to register to vote on Election Day in counties participating in the project. HB220 would expand the pilot project to include early voting.
Until Wednesday, there has been little public discussion during the 2015 Legislature related to covering Utah's uninsured population, but lawmakers maintain that the pressing issue remains one of their top priorities.
"I think legislators are well aware there are people that need coverage and demand for medical services. We work on this every day, and we know it's important, and we know there are people that can't wait," Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said Wednesday. "Frankly, we're trying to find a solution that will help people, but also something that is sustainable so we don't give them something and then have to take it away."
So far, despite no consensus on any specific program, lawmakers are faced with a decision of enacting full expansion of the Medicaid program as set forth by the Affordable Care Act (SB83), pursuing an alternative to expansion that Gov. Gary Herbert has negotiated with the federal government (SB164), insuring the most needy or medically vulnerable of the uninsured population (SB153), or doing nothing.
The majority of residents who spoke at various legislative committee meetings Wednesday support the governor's Healthy Utah plan, including doctors, business leaders, social workers and people who are uninsured.