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LAWMAKERS DELAY LAW ON SEX OFFENDERS

General-session budget `mistake,' voting records on child-friendly legislation, Page B2.With recrimination, regret, accusations and a few tears, Utah lawmakers Wednesday delayed - but refused to repeal - a controversial law eliminating minimum-mandatory sentences for child sex offenders.

The first special legislative session in over a year ran from 3 p.m until about 10 p.m. as last-minute amendments to a law on new-home impact fees played out. And while nearly a dozen items were finally approved, it was the child molester bill that drew the most criticism and emotion."I had no idea what I voted on," in the last hour of the 1995 session, admitted freshman Rep. Brian Allen, R-Salt Lake. "How do we save face?"

The option before legislators was whether to delay for a year the implementation of SB287 - which eliminated the state's five-to-life, 10-to-life and 15-to-life minimum-mandatory sentences for child sexual abuse and replaces them with a more flexible five-to-life sentence - or repeal the law outright.

While both Republicans and Democrats advocated and voted for repeal, the issue turned partisan after House Minority Leader Frank Pignanelli, D-Salt Lake, and Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, D-Granite, sponsored measures to repeal the law.

The major change in state criminal justice policy was sprung on lawmakers without any public hearings leaving even some lawmakers in the dark until the last minute. It was sponsored and pushed by Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, in the final 11/2 hours of the 1995 session.

Sen. David Buhler, R-Salt Lake, originally voted for the bill but said the Legislature's action "undermined public trust in this body. I am unable to explain to anybody why we did it."

Buhler's attempt in the Senate to have Beattie's bill repealed failed in an 8-20 vote.

While Beattie did make it clear to senators what they were voting on, the bill wasn't well understood by many House members.

With more than enough blame to go around Wednesday, some legislators let it be known they didn't vote on SB287, didn't know what they voted on, or were some of the few who voted against it.

House Majority Leader Christine Fox, R-Lehi, summed up the reasoning behind delaying SB287 instead of repealing it - delay will keep the issue before the Legislature. If the law is repealed, the issue will die, she said. "No one here has the guts to come back with this next year (if SB287 is repealed)," she said. An attempt to repeal the law failed in the House, 25-48.

Beattie, in a tearful address to the Senate after implementation of the bill was delayed, said this was the most difficult issue he's dealt with in his six years in office. He said he didn't apologize for SB287, that changing the minimum-mandatory law is still a good goal.

But he did apologize to House members for not making it clear what the bill did. And he apologized to his family for the pain and abuse they have had to endure because of his actions.

Several legislators said they've received angry calls over SB287 - which they say has been misunderstood by the public. Beattie and others said they received death threats.

In the end, some legislators decided whether to vote for repeal or delayed implementation based on whether or not Beattie should be further scourged. Said Rep. Jordan Tanner, R-Provo: "The knife has been thrust deep enough in the Senate sponsor (Beattie), and we shouldn't push it in any deeper."

It was clear lawmakers were not so much upset with Beattie over what he did, but how he did it. And the fact they went along with him. Many lawmakers publicly apologized for voting for something that did not allow public participation.

"I am guilty. I made a mistake," Howell said.

But Sen. Blaze Wharton, D-Murray, chastised the hypocrisy of fellow senators who so eloquently apologized for not involving the public on this issue but didn't offer a word of apology about their last-minute rush to ban same-sex marriages or pass a $90 million property tax cut - all without public comment or floor debate.

"If we shouldn't have been doing it (for the minimum-mandatory issue) we shouldn't have been doing it for same-sex marriages or property tax cuts," he said.

The state's Sentencing Commission will study SB287 for a year and make recommendations to the 1996 Legislature. The Legislature will hold public hearings. If SB287 isn't amended in the 1996 session - and it most certainly will be - then it becomes law in May 1996.