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Weary lawmakers end 'mild' session

But they'll be back to settle applied-tech issue

Utah lawmakers, weary from 45 days of debating bills and passing budgets, will be back at it within a couple of months, called back into a special session over whether to set up a new state college of applied technology and no doubt other issues that failed when the 2001 Legislature ended at midnight Wednesday.

What will be on that special session call is up to Gov. Mike Leavitt, who promised lawmakers the issue of overseeing applied technology education will be heard again, and soon. Leavitt could also put hate crimes or any other number of hot-button issues on the special session call. Once legislators convene in a special session they have 30 days to finish, although usually such sessions last only a day or two.

While debate over a new college dominated the last day of the 2001 session — and emotions ran high Wednesday night — it was really a rather mild session.

And why not? When you have a lot of money at your disposal you tend to be happy.

The 104 part-time legislators had an extra $650 million in revenues this 45-day general session and found lots of ways to spend it.

But the congeniality that generally marked the 2001 session dimmed a bit in the final two hours before the midnight adjournment as the House considered a revolutionary proposal by the Senate to create a 10th college in the state — a college of Applied Technology Centers that would incorporate the nine regional ATCs across Utah.

After 45 minutes of emotional debate, House members voted 41-34 to kill the bill and ask Leavitt to call a spring special session to further consider the new idea.

Leavitt said following the adjournment, "I think you can say I'm 100 percent sure" to call a special session.

It was just too great a leap of faith to make a major educational policy decision after the bill was plopped on House desks "just hours ago," said House Majority Assistant Whip Greg Curtis, R-Sandy.

"We may have lost one tonight, but we will win," vowed Senate President Al Mansell, R—Sandy.

While ATC governance may have dominated the last day, money ruled most of the rest of the session.

Lawmakers decided that Utahns will get $25 million in tax cuts, $18 million coming in an income tax break that means $32 for most married couples.

Some other businesses and groups — such as the poor — received other small, specialized tax cuts as well.

But legislators didn't take a first step in removing the sales tax from food, even though they probably could have afforded a bill that would have begun a phase-out of the much-hated tax.

Public education received increases of nearly 13 percent, the best ever.

Higher education institutions received healthy increases, too, along with a number of new buildings wanted by college chiefs.

State employees received pay raises of 4 percent — 6 percent when benefits are added in. And it's unlikely educators will strike again, considering their basic increase went up by 5.5 percent. Teachers will have to work a couple of extra days next year to learn about a new student-testing system.

Both Mansell and House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, said there were several reasons for the kinder, gentler session.

Gone were some of the caustic personalities in the Senate. "I can't remember a session where members of the Senate, Republican and Democrat, got along better," Mansell said. "There were not the extreme divisions, not the anger."

Stephens said House Republicans and Democrats made an effort to talk to each other. "We didn't have the flare-ups" of some other recent sessions. "All in all, it worked."

"On the surface, a mild session is a good way to describe it," said House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake.

But deep down, Democrats have complaints — from the refusal to debate and killing of all the government reform bills to stifling a bill that would have required some insurance plans to cover birth control pills.

"The ramifications of living in a one-party state" were made clear this session, Becker added. If the Republicans, who hold two-thirds majorities in both houses, don't want to talk, end of debate.

Still, Becker said, "there were good lines of communications across the aisle, and we appreciated that."

Part of the good feelings came because controversial bills passed their houses of origin but were killed in the opposing bodies. That was the case with the hate crimes bill, where Senate Democrat Pete Suazo was aided by Mansell. But the bill was torpedoed by House Republicans who refused to let it be debated.

Ditto for Rep. Matt Throckmorton's parental spanking bill, which would have allowed parents to spank their children, as long as it didn't cause permanent damage. That passed the House but was killed in the Senate.

While legislators had record monies to spend in their $7.6 billion budget, clouds are on the horizon. Long-range revenue forecasts predict a slowdown in tax revenues in four or five years. Combined with an increase in the number of school children, it means the state budget could fall into the red.

Legislators put aside $20 million for an education savings account, hoping to add to that in the years ahead to help handle the predicted enrollment boom.

While a number of new ideas — or old ideas revisited — surfaced over the past 45 days, many were rejected.

In addition to the death of the hate crimes bill, tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools failed.

And the anticipated fight over HB320 — a controversial utility regulation bill — never materialized as lawmakers quickly killed the bill in the first days of the session. But HB320's sponsor, Rep. Dave Ure, R-Kamas, did succeed in getting the Division of Consumer Services moved out of the Public Service Commission offices.

A bill that would place theater owners at criminal risk if they allow underage children to watch films that could be harmful to them also failed to pass.

While around 400 new bills were passed, the emphasis was on money.

"We spent a lot of one-time money this year," said House Assistant Majority Whip Greg Curtis, R-Sandy. That's a bit of an understatement.

Surpluses from the past and current fiscal years were huge, and legislators used the money in many different ways, including spending nearly $150 million in cash on buildings, most of them at colleges and universities.

What is one man's economic development is another man's pork. And while a lot of spending went on, only a few projects raised some eyebrows.

In one of the final budget bills, Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, received $2 million to build another nine holes on the Green River nine-hole golf course.

"This is not pork," said Dmitrich, the longest-serving member of the Legislature and an avid golfer. "Green River city is donating some land (for the golf course); it's a great economic development project for a place that needs some tourism."

Legislators didn't issue a general obligation bond for buildings, only the second time that's happened in recent sessions. But they did pass a $100 million road bond for the Legacy Highway, even though it may not be under construction for a year because of threatened lawsuits.

New construction on Capitol Hill will begin with two multi-story wings behind the Capitol to house the Legislature and other top officers so the 80-year-old Capitol itself can be vacated and reinforced. That $300 million need was made plain Wednesday when a large earthquake hit Washington state, cracking the dome of its Capitol building in Olympia.

"If we'd had a 7.0 earthquake here today, we'd all be sitting in the basement" because the Utah Capitol would collapse, Mansell said Wednesday afternoon after learning of the Northwest quake.

Some of the major fights looming when lawmakers convened Jan. 15 never materialized.

Banks and credit unions blasted themselves into stalemate, with House members refusing to set up a special task force to study issues of bank/credit union competition.

All gun control bills failed as one of the major battles in the 2000 session was barely a peep this year. Only one bill wanted by gun advocates passed this session, allowing out-of-state visitors with concealed weapons permits to bring their guns with them.

Few so-called morality bills were introduced, fewer still approved.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said the Legislature wasn't as conservative as some believed it would be, especially on tax cuts and some family value issues. But she predicted that as a new crop of conservatives elected last November get their legislative feet under them, more "family-oriented" bills will pass in years to come.

Becker pointed to one anomaly this session: The Utah Education Association was punished for supporting and recruiting a number of candidates in the 2000 elections and for calling a one-day strike Dec. 5.

"I've never seen that kind of punishment of a group because of its constitutional political activity before," Becker said.

Public employee unions are now banned from collecting political contributions through payroll deduction. The bill will hamper the ability of the UEA and the Utah Public Employees Association to raise PAC monies. The groups promise a court challenge. The UEA spends more money in legislative races than any other PAC and has a war chest of more than $500,000 in cash.

Republicans who passed the bill say it is not punishment at all but that governments shouldn't be in the business of helping any political cause, especially special-interest PACs.


Contributing: Dennis Romboy.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com