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Utah lawmakers head home as session ends

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 15, 2013 at 2:12 am •  Published: March 15, 2013
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah lawmakers are heading home after their 45-day session ended at midnight Thursday, with lawmakers working out last-minute agreements to relocate the Utah State Prison, change the state's liquor laws and fix a gap in state election law so the Attorney General would not investigate himself.

The late fix for the state election law allows the lieutenant governor to bypass sending an elections complaint to the attorney general to investigate if it concerns the attorney general himself.

That conflict was revealed last week after a progressive political group filed a complaint with the Utah lieutenant governor's office alleging Attorney General John Swallow violated election law by failing to report several business interests on his campaign disclosures.

Swallow's campaign consultant says the complaint is without merit.

Lawmakers were notified of the conflict Tuesday and passed a bill on their last day that addressed it by allowing the lieutenant governor to bring in outside counsel to investigate.

Beyond those late-hour negotiations, the session was fairly quiet, with few protests or entrenched battles over legislation.

"It was very calm— some would say boring," House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart said Thursday afternoon.

Gov. Gary Herbert, agreed, saying members of the Legislature, which is dominated by Republicans, had worked well together.

"There's not been a lot of drama up here," Herbert said.

Democratic leaders said Thursday that while they had fewer lawmakers in their party this year, they felt they were still able to be effective and get some of their causes to the governor.

Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, cited her bill that aims to curb dating violence by allowing victims to obtain a protective order as an example. The legislation has been proposed several times in recent years, and after some long debates, it won final approval in the Legislature.

This year was marked by an influx of freshman lawmakers, the most in the past 20 years, which legislative leaders say got things off to a slow start as lawmakers introduced fewer bills in the first month than they had in the past decade.

But by noon on the last day, the Legislature had passed 447 bills, on track to be the highest number in the past 13 years. The late wave of legislation left a lot to be considered in the final days, with lawmakers churning through dozens of pieces of legislation.

"I pled with my colleagues at the beginning of the session: let's not have so many bills," said Lockhart, a Provo Republican. "In reality, the majority of bills run aren't major policy changes. They're tweaks or clarifications of existing law," she said.

The few major policy changes lawmakers did take up sought to expand gun rights and bar the governor from expanding the state's Medicaid program.

The Medicaid proposal aimed to push the governor to reject expanding the state's charity care program, but lawmakers retreated from that idea over concerns it was rushing a decision on the issue.

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday night that he's pleased lawmakers recognized the decision is his to make, and said that he and lawmakers will have to jointly steer the program going forward.

Besides retreating from the anti-Medicaid push, two of this session's three attention-grabbing gun bills died in the Senate late Thursday.

One proposal, which legislative attorneys warned would likely be found unconstitutional, declared Utah's authority to regulate firearms in the state trumped federal gun laws.

Another bill sought to bar police from citing someone for disorderly conduct for simply carrying a gun, as long as the person wasn't disregarding police orders or behaving in a threatening manner.

The moves to expand firearm rights were a response to a push in Washington, D.C., to increase gun control restrictions after recent mass shootings.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said state lawmakers had a duty to push back against the federal government, but not to a point where they couldn't be effective.

One gun proposal that's successfully made it the governor's desk would eliminate the need for a permit to carry a concealed gun in Utah, as long as it's unloaded.

Herbert hasn't said if he will sign or veto it, but will say he's satisfied with the state's gun laws and doesn't feel that they need to be changed.

Lawmakers one again tackled the state liquor laws this year.

The Legislature took up and later dropped a move to repeal a requirement for some restaurants to mix and pour alcoholic drinks behind a barrier. That idea was nixed during the final week when lawmakers raised concerns that removing the barriers would promote a "culture of alcohol" in the state.

Herbert said there's no clear evidence that the rule is effective to prevent underage or excessive drinking, or conversely, that it harms restaurants or tourism, but said he expects lawmakers will revisit the issue next year.

Overall, Herbert said he was pleased with the work lawmakers had done this year, especially working to balance a roughly $13 billion state budget that matched his priorities for education spending.

The proposal included $68.6 million to cover the cost of more than 13,000 new students and about $48 million to increase per-student spending.

"This has been an extraordinary year for education," Herbert said, noting that almost 75 percent of the state's new revenue was direct to education.

The budget also sets aside $54 million for a new classroom building at Utah Valley University, almost $3 million to extend a tax credit for alternative-fuel vehicles for one more year, and $3.5 million for a school-based mental health program that aims to diagnose disorders early in a person's life.

"I think in proportion, we've done a really good job of prioritizing here in the state of Utah with the taxpayer's dollars," Herbert said.

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Associated Press writer Annie Knox contributed to this report.