SALT LAKE CITY -- After 44 days of struggle and debate, the 2009 Utah Legislature is in its final hours.
That means last-minute deal-making is underway. Many bills are still on the table as lawmakers look to wrap up the session by midnight.
Since the session opened, lawmakers have focused on the state's $10 billion budget. That's still the priority as the session comes to an end. The sticking point is education.
As of Wednesday night the education budget was still in limbo because both the House and Senate were in dispute about funding charter school expansion in 2010. Thursday morning the House concurred with the Senate's amendment to House Bill 2 and passed the bill 47 to 27.
House Majority Leader Kevin Garn R-Layton said, "At some point in time we have to have parody between public schools and charter schools. I think during the interim we're going to work on that funding formula so there is parody between the two."
The problem lawmakers had with the Minimum School Program Budget Amendment was that it put a cap on charter school growth. Garn says that cap has been removed, and the budget issue will be discussed during the interim and then resolved next year.
"There is a competition for money, and so it is always a struggle, but we need to treat both of them fairly, so that is what we are going to work on. So as it stands right now, they are going to be funded for their growth, and so is public education," Garn said.
Utah Education leaders are grateful cuts to education have not been deeper but say education in Utah is changing.
Kim Campbell of the Utah Education Association said, "I think it would be misleading to not say there are going to be changes this next year. This is not going to be a normal school year."
Another last-minute debate on Capitol Hill is over a group that protects Utah consumers. A bill would strip some of the power from a state-sponsored citizens' committee which watches utilities and the rates they charge.
The measure would make the Committee of Consumer Services, which represents the interest of consumers and small business owners, an advisory group.
The bill passed the Senate 21-8 Wednesday and now will go to the House. But there is no word on whether Gov. Jon Huntsman plans to sign it.
Those are just two of the many issues still on the table, but there is a long list of bills that have been passed. They include:
- A major accomplishment is a change in Utah's liquor laws. Lawmakers agreed to eliminate the private club system in exchange for electronically verifying ID, and for tougher DUI laws.
- On Wednesday, lawmakers approved a bill that would raise vehicle registration by $20. It's part of a package to issue up to $2.2 billion in bonds for road construction projects. Earlier in the day, the House killed the plan because some Utah County lawmakers didn't want to raise fees to balance the budget. That upset GOP leaders who decided they would kill the bill unless everybody from that county agreed to vote yes.
- Lawmakers took another step toward reforming the health insurance system: creating an online portal and more affordable options for those without coverage.
- Lawmakers passed ethics reform limiting, but not banning gifts, closing the revolving door, and changing campaign contribution reporting rules.
- Lawmakers approved spending $891,000 to create a strike force that would focus on combating violent crimes and other major felonies associated with illegal immigration.
- Lawmakers also voted to update electronic harassment laws to include texting and e-mailing. Now, electronic harassment of a minor could result in a class A misdemeanor and a class B misdemeanor against an adult.
- Also headed to the governor's desk is a bill that allows loaded guns in cars and homes without the requirement of a concealed weapon permit. The bill was ammended to say minors can't carry firearms in cars,and loaded rifles or shotguns still can't be carried in a car.
Some items that did not pass this session:
- Lawmakers rejected the idea of a constitutional amendment to limit appeals in death penalty cases.
- A package of gay rights bills: The Common Ground Initiative, failed. The bills aimed at civil rights protections in employment, housing and hospital visitation.