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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah lawmakers return to work Monday with a new governor, a tight budget and calls from the public to clean up their act and pass meaningful ethics reform.
Along the way of their 45-day session, they'll also decide whether gays and lesbians should be protected from housing and employment discrimination, taxes should be raised and how much information students should have access to when it comes to using contraception.
At the top of House Speaker Dave Clark's agenda is quickly passing a series of ethics reforms to persuade the public that legislators are still capable of policing themselves and that there's no need to place several citizens ethics initiatives on the ballot this fall.
Those ethics initiatives were largely inspired by accusations of legislative bribery. Last year, former state Rep. Mark Walker was ordered to pay a $250 fine and complete 100 hours of community service after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge stemming from allegations that he tried to get his competitor in the 2008 state treasurer's race to drop out.
In another case, Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, was cleared of wrongdoing by fellow lawmakers after allegations arose that he offered as much as $50,000 in campaign money to former Republican Rep. M. Susan Lawrence if she would change her vote on the school voucher bill in 2007.
Hughes faced a drawn out investigation that left Republicans and Democrats frustrated with a lack of clear guidelines for what conduct is allowed and how ethics hearings should be conducted.
"We clearly found out the system we had must be improved," Clark said. "This is intended to let the public know exactly how serious we think this is."
Clark said GOP leaders in the House and Senate have agreed to a package of ethics bills that would create an independent ethics commission, ban most lobbyist gifts and set campaign contribution limits, although final details are still being worked out.
Utah is one of just a handful of states that places no limits on who can donate to campaigns or how much.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who has received contributions as large as $50,000, has said he opposes campaign contribution limits because they might prevent less affluent people from running for statewide office. He says that rapid disclosure of campaign contributions is more effective.
Under the bills being prepared in the House, office holders and candidates would also be required to file disclosure reports listing contributions and expenditures every month instead of only four times a year.
While Herbert opposes contribution limits, he hasn't said whether he would veto a bill that includes them.
Herbert, who is undergoing his first legislative session as governor since Jon Huntsman resigned, also hasn't said whether he would veto any tax increases.
Several lawmakers are eyeing increases to the sales tax on food, tobacco and fuel to help soften a projected $700 million shortfall next year. Those cuts will come after lawmakers chop about 4 percent from every state agency's budget this year in the legislative session's first few weeks.
"I don't think we're out of this in a year. I think it's going to take several years," said Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. "It's not pretty."
Between budget and ethics discussions, lawmakers are also expected to decide whether gays and lesbians should be protected from employment and housing discrimination. Herbert has repeatedly said he doesn't think they should be, but momentum for some kind of protection has been growing in recent months.
That's because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has supported a nondiscrimination ordinance in Salt Lake City and indicated it could be a fit elsewhere.
More than 80 percent of state lawmakers are members of the LDS church. If the church supports a similar law at the state level, it would virtually guarantee its passage.
Clark said he suspects lawmakers will run bills extending protections to gays and lesbians and ones that prevent cities from doing so, but he doesn't think either would pass.
It won't be the only sensitive subject at the Capitol.
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, is sponsoring a bill that would require schools to provide education on contraception beginning in the 11th grade, ending abstinence-only education in many school districts.
That proposal is likely to draw opposition from the conservative Eagle Forum and United Families International, who fear it may promote promiscuity. The bill would still prohibit advocating sex outside of marriage. The bill is intended to combat unwanted pregnancies and the spread of chlamydia.
In Utah, 66 percent of chlamydia cases occur in people between 15 and 24 years old.
"Kids are more likely to get chlamydia than the flu," said Melissa Bird, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Council.
The legislative session lasts through March 11.
Associated Press Writer Joseph Freeman contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)