Funding education is one of the chief priorities for Utah lawmakers as they return to the state Capitol to start this year’s legislative session.
Lawmakers are already diving into perennial issues such as the state’s liquor and gun laws, including a proposal that would do away with a permit requirement for those carrying a concealed firearm.
<div class=”p402_hide”>The GOP-controlled Legislature also has to produce a balanced budget that grapples with swelling enrollment in public schools and the possibility of waves of new people being added to the state’s Medicaid rolls.</div>
“We’ll deal with a lot of issues this year, from guns to alcohol, but the biggest issue every year is the budget,” said the new Senate President, Wayne Niederhauser.
Niederhauser, a Republican from Sandy, said he’d like to see lawmakers look five and 10 years down the road rather than just the coming year or so when looking at where they’ll send money.
“It’s the nature of legislators to be reactive, and I’d like to see us be less reactive and more forward thinking,” he said.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert has called on lawmakers to make education a priority this year, and lawmakers appear to be on board.
The first place they’ll look to send money will be public education, and that’s the last place they will look for cuts, Niederhauser said.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart said balancing the budget is the first priority, but when lawmakers look at their expenses, public education will be one of the first concerns.
Balancing the budget and determining what money is available for schools still hangs on decisions in Washington, D.C., Lockhart said.
The Provo Republican said it’s “incredibly frustrating” for Utah to come up with state solutions when it’s unclear how Congress will tackle its budget and limits on America’s borrowing.
Congress could decide to cut programs or spending that affects Utah’s revenue, and that uncertainty “keeps money on the sidelines,” said Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden.
For Democrats, education spending is a chief goal, said Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, who feels the state needs to put more money into public schools and higher education this year.
Davis, a Salt Lake Democrat, said members of his party would also like to see the state expand Medicaid, the federal-state program for the poor and disabled. The state is still in the process of analyzing what it would cost the state to run that expansion.
Lawmakers are also expected this year to introduce new ethics regulations after Attorney General John Swallow was accused of orchestrating a plan to bribe a U.S. Senator to quash a federal investigation.
Swallow has adamantly denied the allegations and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah is investigating. But the governor and others have suggested the Legislature create a panel to review ethics complaints against those in the attorney general or governor’s office.
Davis said that proposal is a “good first step” for the Legislature to retool ethics regulations.
The five-week legislative session kicked off Monday morning and runs until March 14.