Legislature failed to help struggling families, advocates say

Legislature failed to help struggling families, advocates say

(Laura Seitz, KSL)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Several proposals that would have helped Utah's low-income families get ahead died this year at the Utah Legislature, advocates and a faith leader said Friday on the steps of the state Capitol.

"Our representatives missed a critical opportunity to support working parents," said Rev. Monica Dobbins, assistant minister at First Unitarian Church in salt Lake City.

Rev. Dobbins and advocates for the poor called out Utah's Republican-controlled Legislature for failing to pass several measures, including a minimum wage hike, a plan to study pay disparities between men and women working for the state and a bill erasing Utah's food tax.

"We see the results of this session as a call to action for all Utahns," said Danielle Boenisch, of Utahns For Fair Wages.

Some of the proposals the groups had hoped lawmakers would approve before the 2018 legislative session wrapped up at midnight Thursday include the following:

Gender-wage study

The plan to study gender-based wage gaps in state government was introduced in a state Senate committee but didn't move forward. Its sponsor, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said colleagues who peppered her with questions focused on procedure appeared to have problems with the idea behind the bill.

SB152 would have set aside $125,000 in state money for an independent study of gender-based wage disparities. Escamilla said such an analysis would give legislators more information for making decisions about wage policies.

Lifting the food tax

An unsuccessful bill sponsored by Rep.Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, would have erased the 1.75 percent tax on food, except for candy. To make up the difference, the proposal sought to raise sales taxes on other purchases from 4.7 percent to 4.92 percent. Quinn said the food tax was a moral issue and called the bill a good trade-off to help those less fortunate.

The full House passed the proposal, but it stalled without enough support from a Senate committee. Melissa Jensen of Utahns Against Hunger said Friday that "this bill wasn’t just the right thing to do, it was good policy."

Raising minimum wage

A measure seeking to raise Utah's minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $10.25 in July and then again to $12 in 2022 failed to clear its first hurdle in the House Business and Labor Committee.

Discrimination at small businesses

Bill sponsor Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, sought to grant legal recourse to victims of workplace discrimination at small businesses, but that proposal also failed.

Edwards' measure would have offered the protection to people who work for businesses that employ more than five employees. The current law only applies to those with 15 employees.

Advocates Friday said the measure would have helped ensure that parents who work in small offices wouldn't lose their jobs due to discrimination based on disability, sex or other factors.

Paid family leave

A proposal that would have granted six weeks of paid parental leave to employees of state agencies and public colleges passed the House Business and Labor Committee in an 11-1 vote, but it never reached the full chamber.

At the rally on Friday, Rev. Dobbins said she has spoken with several state employees who have had to use vacation or sick time to care for their newborns, "leaving them few options if their baby gets sick after it's born."

The failed proposals would have helped families find strong financial footing and raise healthier, safer children, said Anna Thomas, senior policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children.

Children whose parents have trouble scraping up enough money for food and clothes are more likely to struggle in school, lash out and turn to drugs and alcohol, among other unhealthy outcomes, Thomas said. That's why she and others will continue urging lawmakers to approve the measures next year, she said.

"We've started the conversation, and we're not going anywhere."


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