Utah Legislature enters final days of session

This Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 photo shows representatives on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Utah lawmakers are into the final days of this year’s legislative session, triggering a hectic week of long days in which lawmakers churn through bills and put the final touches on the budget before adjourning late Thursday.

Utah’s 45-day session, among the shortest in the country, was a first for 1 in 4 representatives in the Utah House who are new to the body.

Legislative leaders said this year’s influx of freshman, which is the highest in the past 20 years, got things off to a slower start, as lawmakers introduced fewer bills in the first month than they have in the past decade.

But by the end of last week, lawmakers had caught up, having introduced more than 730 bills, just above the average annual number. Through last Friday, the Legislature had passed 263 bills, the second highest number in the past 10 years.

Lawmakers have debated bills on contentious issues like the state’s gun laws, including a proposal that declares Utah’s authority to regulate firearms in the state, which legislative attorneys said will likely be ruled unconstitutional.

Freshman Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, sponsored the measure, which he said is an assertion of state’s rights and individual liberty. The legislation says that if a judge declares that a state gun law conflicts with a federal law, the state law will be supreme and federal and state officers cannot enforce the federal law.

The House has signed off on the proposal, but it’s still awaiting debate in the Senate.

Another bill waiting for Senate debate would eliminate the need for a permit to carry a concealed gun in Utah, as long as it’s unloaded.

Lawmakers have also introduced a number of changes to the state’s liquor laws.

One measure would repeal a state mandate for restaurants to mix and pour alcoholic drinks behind a barrier or so-called Zion curtain. Another proposal on its way to the governor clarifies that diners may have an alcoholic drink before actually ordering food in a restaurant, as long as they’ve indicated they intend to purchase food. Other bills seek to create a “master” liquor license to make it easier for restaurant to expand to more locations and instill tougher penalties on restaurants caught serving liquor to underage patrons.

On other matters, Utah legislators plan to consider legislation that would advance a plan to relocate the state prison in southwest Salt Lake County and postpone the implementation of the state’s guest worker program. Also up for discussion are a handful of measures lawmakers hope will help mitigate Utah’s air pollution problems.

Lawmakers also are finalizing negotiations on the roughly $13 billion budget, having voted Friday night to approve how to spend $426 million in additional revenue.

Highlights of the final budget proposal that lawmakers have agreed on include funding for a 1 percent pay raise for teachers and other state employees, $68.5 million to cover the costs of new students in public schools, and $5 million for science, technology, engineering and math education programs.

They also agree on $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 program that aims to diagnose disorders early on in a young person’s life.

Legislative analysts estimate Utah is losing about $39 million in federal funds from recent broad spending cuts in Washington, D.C., but Utah lawmakers say they’re unable to backfill those cuts.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, the Utah Senate’s budget chairman, said he expects that by Wednesday, lawmakers will be putting the finishing touches on the budget and finalizing how they will spend money for new legislation this year.

The final budget must be approved by midnight Thursday.

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