Utah lawmakers close out relatively quiet session

Speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, adjourns the House of Representatives Thursday, March 14, 2013, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. 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. Lawmakers spent the last day churning through dozens of pieces of legislation and putting the finishing touches on a roughly $13 billion state budget. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – With the pounding of her gavel just after midnight, House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart closed out the Utah Legislature’s 45-day session after a marathon final day.

The weary legislators broke out in cheers early Friday after 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.

Beyond those late-hour negotiations, lawmakers addressed the state’s gun laws and an anti-discrimination measure that got closer to approval than any had before, but the session featured few protests or entrenched battles.

“It was very calm _ some would say boring,” 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 were still able to be effective and get some of their causes to the governor.

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

This year was marked by an influx of freshman lawmakers _ the most in the past 20 years _ which legislative leaders say led to a slow start. Fewer bills were introduced in the first month of the session than in the first month of any session in the past decade.

But by the end of the session, the Legislature had passed 524 bills, the most 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 bills.

“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.

But lawmakers did take up a few major policy changes, including seeking to expand gun rights and trying to bar the governor from expanding the state’s Medicaid program.

One gun proposal passed, while the other died. A proposal that declared Utah’s authority to regulate firearms in the state trumped federal gun laws was shot down, with legislative attorneys warning it would likely be found unconstitutional.

Lawmakers did push through a measure that eliminates the need for a permit to carry a concealed gun, as long as it’s unloaded. Herbert hasn’t said if he will sign or veto it, but he did say he’s satisfied with the state’s gun laws and doesn’t believe they need to be changed.

Lawmakers once again tackled the state’s liquor laws.

The Legislature considered repealing a requirement for some restaurants to mix and pour alcoholic drinks behind a barrier known as the “Zion Curtain.” 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.

The governor said that, overall, he was pleased with the work lawmakers did, 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. 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.

“We’ve done a really good job of prioritizing here in the state of Utah with the taxpayer’s dollars,” Herbert said.


Associated Press writer Annie Knox contributed to this report.

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