Utah Legislators Wrapping Up Session

Utah Legislators Wrapping Up Session

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Utah Legislature was lumbering toward adjournment Wednesday night and wrapping up a budget after a session marked by conservative message bills, a ban on gay marriages and a fight over patients' rights.

Gov. Olene Walker said she will sign a measure that abolishes Utah's firing squad, leaving only lethal injection as the state's form of execution. The bill makes allowance for four death-row inmates who already have chosen to go out in a hail of bullets.

After two years of cutting state agencies and programs, legislators had some extra money to spend for the fiscal year starting July 1. They were adopting an $8.27 billion budget, up 8.4 percent from this year's $7.63 billion.

Lawmakers were boosting public education funding, awarding teachers and state employees their first pay raise in three years and trying to keep up with a growing Medicaid caseload. They also were budgeting another $500,000 for the fight against a spent nuclear-fuel repository proposed for the Skull Valley Indian reservation.

Gay couples and supporters descended on the Capitol, waving signs -- "End the Legislative Session Hate Free" -- in an unsuccessful to keep the Senate from approving a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The Senate returned the bill to the House for further consideration. If approved there, it will be on the November ballot.

Legislators already had sent Walker the Marriage Recognition Policy, which would put the gay marriage ban in state law. Walker hasn't said whether she'll sign it. The governor has no say on constitutional amendments.

In another battle, legislators drawing on the celebrated Parker Jensen case introduce dozens of measures to give parental rights supremacy over long-standing child-welfare laws. Parker's family successfully fought the state's efforts to force chemotherapy on the 12-year-old boy, who was diagnosed with cancer.

But by late Wednesday only one of those bills had cleared both houses. House Bill 140 would make judges give weight to a minor's maturity in deciding a medical dispute, which is what the judge in Parker's case finally determined.

The Legislature, where all 75 House members and 15 of 29 senators are up for election this year, also took up a number of "message" bills, which had a bigger bark than bite.

Some made national news. Among them was a House-approved, Senate-killed resolution that would have urged Congress to get the United States out of the United Nations.

"I don't like the United Nations, but we're over in Iraq asking for their help. That (resolution) was a little contradictory," said Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan.

Legislators approved resolutions supporting President Bush's wars against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Like last year, the state budget came together on a last-minute deal over an $18.4 million tax on cable and satellite television service. The House of Representatives wanted to kill the tax, but the Senate refused to go along.

Legislators instead reworked it, equalizing tax rates that had been higher for cable than satellite service.

While the budget raised spending by $640 million to $8.27 billion budget, much of that was federal funding and tied to programs including Medicaid.

The portion of the budget supported by state taxes was being fixed at $3.81 billion, up 6.1 percent from this year's $3.59 billion.

That's an increase of more than $220 million. More than half of that was earmarked for public education.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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