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WILL SESSION TURN INTO A DONNYBROOK?

Special legislative sessions can be a pain in the neck, and Wednesday's is shaping up to be just that.

We have anger over Gov. Mike Leavitt's request for $500,000 for child-welfare caseworkers when division managers haven't hired 71 people, most of them caseworkers, for which funds were already allocated.We have Senate President Lane Beattie taking political shots from Democrats and maybe even some from fellow Republicans.

We have some GOP leaders carp-ing about paying an out-of-state child advocate group's legal fees, saying the group is just lining its pockets at the expense of Utah's children.

And, yes, we have to get this session finished by a reasonable time Wednesday night so the 104 legislators can get out of town and back home, or to watch the Utah Jazz/Houston Rockets game or whatever.

Lawmakers were to convene at 3 p.m. Wednesday to discuss about a dozen items Leavitt has placed on their agenda.

"Oh, this is why I hate special sessions," said Senate budget chairman LeRay McAllister, R-Orem, almost to himself Tuesday afternoon after a lengthy discussion in the Executive Appropriations Committee over Leavitt's request for $500,000 "to immediately" hire more child-welfare case-workers.

The problem is, the division currently has 71 unfilled positions. J. Winslow, legislative fiscal analyst, said hiring in the division was slowed in January and February because about 50 "really scary" children were taken out of foster homes where they were considered a threat and placed in some kind of institution. Care for each child costs $5,800 a month, eating up money that could have gone to hiring more caseworkers, Winslow said.

"So, they took money allocated for one purpose - hiring more caseworkers - and spent it on something else," said House budget chairman Marty Stephens, R-Farr West. Any shortage of case-workers "isn't our fault, we gave them adequate funds that they've decided to spend somewhere else."

Yes, said Winslow, but what else could the managers do?

House Assistant Majority Whip Kevin Garn, R-Layton, took the unusual step of making a motion that the Executive Appropriations Committee refuse Leavitt's request for the $500,000 in new money. "They haven't spent what we've already given them," said Garn.

But legislative leaders balked at that, instead demanding that Leavitt budget director Lynne Koga and Human Services officials come prepared Wednesday with hard explanations for not hiring the 71 new workers and good reasons why $500,000 more should be allocated to the division.

The GOP leaders' anger spilled over onto another Leavitt request. He wants lawmakers to allocate $624,000 plus $11,000 in interest to attorneys for the National Center for Youth Law, the group that sued the state in 1992 over how children were cared for when the state took them out of their parents' or guardians' homes.

After six months of litigation in federal court, the state and the center agreed to an action plan. Millions of dollars have been pumped into the state's child-welfare program. And part of the court agreement is that the state pay the center's attorneys' fees. The center asked for more than $1 million in fees, but federal Judge David Winder agreed to $624,000 plus interest.

"If this center really cared about Utah's children, they'd donate their legal fees to help our children," said House Majority Leader Christine Fox, R-Lehi.

"These people don't care about our children. They're concerned about lining their own pockets," said Garn.

As reported Tuesday in the Deseret News, some legislators will try Wednesday to repeal SB287, an ill-conceived attempt in the final hour of the 1995 Legislature to change the state's minimum-mandatory child sex offender sentences.

Beattie, R-West Bountiful, convinced lawmakers that final night to scrap the state's five-years-to-life, 10-years-to-life and 15-years-to-life child sex offender sentences and replace them with a straight five-to-life sentence. The change would give judges, Corrections officials and parole board members greater flexibility in dealing with child rapists and abusers.

Beattie specifically didn't want public debate on the change. He said at the time that the sentences weren't really working and that not enough abusers were being locked up under the laws.

But a public outcry ensued. Leavitt called the special session to delay implementation of SB287 for a year, and Beattie publicly apologized for his actions.

Tuesday morning, freshman Sen. David Buhler, R-Salt Lake City, announced he'll try to repeal - rather than delay - SB287. Tuesday afternoon, House Minority Leader Frank Pignanelli, D-Salt Lake City, and Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, D-Granite, said they would also try to repeal SB287 in the session.

Beattie said the bill shouldn't be repealed. It holds child advocates' feet to the fire so that some change - and some change is needed - will be made to the ineffective sentences, he said. "I won't speculate on the politics of why (the Democratic leaders) are doing this. It seems pretty clear," Beattie said.

Buhler worries that legislators can't get the two-thirds vote needed to put Leavitt's one-year delay of SB287 into immediate law. If the delay passes by just a majority, then SB287 will be in effect from May 1 to June 19 - and really cause problems for prosecutors and help child molesters awaiting trial.

Repealing SB287 would leave the current sentences in place, and the 1996 Legislature, after public hearings, can make whatever changes it wants, says Buhler.

Leavitt stands by his request that the bill be delayed, not repealed. "But no matter what the Legislature does with it - repeal or delay - our Sentencing Commission will still study the matter and make recommendations to the 1996 Legislature," said Leavitt spokeswoman Vicki Varela.