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2002 Legislature

Public Education

Another money-related battle is brewing for schools: tuition tax credits.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, wants to offer parents a $2,100 tax incentive to send their children to private schools. That way, he says, public schools alone won't have to educate an estimated 100,000 new students by 2010 or build so many schools to accommodate them.

The rest of the some $4,200 the state reports is spent per-student would remain in the system, even if the child doesn't, Buttars says.

But public education groups from the superintendents association to the Utah PTA oppose the idea. They believe tuition tax credits unfairly relieve private schools from accountability. The credits would rob public schools of money, sorely needed in the current economic downturn.

They also cite waiting lists at several private schools, and don't believe credits will encourage more to open.

Dan Jones & Associates found 40 percent of the 405 Utah residents surveyed last month favor the idea of tuition tax credits, whereas 56 percent probably or definitely oppose it.

Higher Education

University bosses wonder how they will maintain programs for more students while budgets are eroding.

Higher education lobbyists will urge legislators to bond or use Rainy Day Fund savings and other short-term concessions to the Legislature's pay-as-you go philosophy to help colleges and universities through the current economic slide. Republicans have shown little enthusiasm for those alternatives going into the session, although GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt and Democrats seem more amenable.

Higher Education Commissioner Cecelia Foxley has warned if inadequate funding doesn't come while colleges are seeing 8 percent student growth, students could be turned away, and those who aren't will have difficulty getting the classes they need to graduate.

In the non-fiscal area, higher education leaders will promote a bill that would shift oversight of for-profit training institutions out of the commissioner's office and into the business regulation department. They also will back a bill that would allow illegal aliens who graduate from Utah high schools to attend public colleges without having to pay a non-resident fee.

Human Services

Bills that tweak the system and improve child visitation rights are key elements of human services legislation this year.

Possibly the longest piece of legislation outside the budget bill is SB17, which proposes hundreds of amendments to state child welfare and protection databases. At the heart of the bill, sponsored by Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, are changes in how accused child abusers are entered, tracked and deleted from monitoring lists kept by the state.

A much shorter but even more controversial bill is HB37, which for the first time would punish custodial parents who don't follow court-ordered child visitation agreements. Rep. James Ferrin, R-Orem, says the change is needed because parents who don't have custody of children are often denied visitation for no reason but have no alternative other than seeking another court order.

Another bill to further bridle child protection agencies is HB28, which would make child abuse investigators no longer immune from prosecution for purposely mishandling a case. Sponsor Rep. Matt Throckmorton, R-Springville, said the legislation is needed to protect children and parents in an abuse investigation from caseworkers who act capriciously or fraudently against a family.

More tightening of the system is proposed legislation, not yet numbered, to require a court warrant before a child can be removed from a home where abuse has occurred. Some legislators believe parental rights have been stepped on in recent years by state agencies they say act too quickly in child abuse cases. Other related bills include requiring minimum visitation time when a parent relocates, either by leaving the state or by putting more than 150 miles between a noncustodial parent and a child.

Visitation rights are also the key factor SB 87, which clarifies the law to allow grandparents to intervene in pending proceeding involving child custdody. Courts are currently required to give grandparents "reasonable rights of visitation."

Another bill, SB25, would add a new requirement that someone filing a request to recover unpaid child support swear the information is true. Falsifying a request could lead to prosecution, a closure of the case and forfeiting the right to collect any back child support.

Health

A lawmaker's threat this past July to have all so-called holding therapy for emotionally troubled children banned in Utah has evolved into a proposal that would revoke the license of anyone caught using "restraint therapy."

Although Rep. Mike Thompson, R-Orem, said he has modified his original intent to banning "holding" therapy the past few months, he has concluded that severe restraint of overwrought children is practiced covertly by therapists.

There are several proponents of holding therapy that is less restrictive to help children through emotional outbursts. But since the death of a 10-year-old girl in Colorado last spring by therapists using "rebirthing" therapy in which the girl was tightly bound and forced to get free, several child advocacy groups have spoken out against all forms of holding therapy.

Thompson said because it is called therapy, it can be difficult to regulate and for parents to recognize its dangers. "But I think through the licensing process, we have the opportunity to clearly prohibit this."

Telecommunications

AT&T will be lobbying lawmakers to pass a bill it believes will foster more competition among local telecoms.

The phone company wants to separate Qwest Communications International Inc.'s retail and wholesale operations, saying that would give customers better options, service and rates.

Qwest has successfully opposed similar efforts in other states.

The Legislature during the upcoming session also will consider an amendment to an existing law would allow Eagle Mountain, the state's only municipal phone company, to tap into the Universal Service Fund for four years as a way to lower customer bills.

The fund was established to offset costs of providing telecommunication services to rural Utahns.

Local government

People living atop Traverse Ridge may have more clarity about their county of residence after the upcoming legislative session.

They may also be the last people to face the problem of living in homes straddling a county line, if one of several proposals passes the 2002 session.

Rep. Dave Hogue, R-Riverton, would prohibit the dividing of any home or lots less than one acre by a county boundary line. Hogue's bill would also prevent the selling of property that will be used for a home if it is divided by a county line.

The boundary line dispute has evolved primarily from the SunCrest housing development above Draper. About 75 homes may be built on the boundary line between Salt Lake and Utah counties. Questions about service, voting and school districts have arisen because of the divided homes.

Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Sandy, will sponsor a bill that would determine residency based on which county most of house sits. Also, identical bills that would allow the Utah Legislature to make small adjustments to boundary lines have been filed in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Currently, those adjustments can only be made by changing the constitution.

Environment

Utah lawmakers have never been particularly fond of environmental causes, and this year should be no exception as several legislators are threatening retaliation against the Sierra Club, Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson and others who initiated a federal lawsuit over Legacy Highway in west Davis County.

The U.S. District Court of Appeals in Denver ordered highway construction stopped pending a hearing in March, but the delays are reportedly costing about $90,000 from public coffers. Angry Davis County lawmakers may consider a bill that would allow the state to recover those losses from the Sierra Club should the state prevail in the litigation — something opponents call a high-stakes slap suit designed to intimidate public opposition.

Other lawmakers are promising payback to Anderson, threatening to withhold money targeted for Salt Lake City projects. And there is some talk that lawmakers could plug the $100,000-a-day hemorrhaging with money now earmarked for commuter rail in Davis County — a mass transit project near and dear to the hearts of Legacy Highway opponents.

Transportation

A constitutional amendment that would allow highway user fees and motor fuel taxes to be used for any transportation system is necessary to allow the Legislature more flexibility, says Rep. Scott Daniels, D-Salt Lake.

"When the constitution was written, transportation meant roads," Daniels said. "It doesn't mean that anymore."

The bill Daniels is sponsoring — if approved by two-thirds of both the Senate and House — would call for a vote of the general public on the amendment. If passed, it would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2003.

Daniels said cities and the Utah Department of Transportation are afraid such a change would mean fewer road building funds.

But there's no reason for that suspicion, he said, because no money will go immediately from roads to mass transit or other projects.

"It's not like there's going to be a huge move, but we ought to have flexibility so we can if we need to," he said.

The bill will go before the Revenue and Taxation panel Tuesday.

Power regulation

The 2002 legislative session will feature at least a couple of bills related to electricity.

One bill, kicked around for more than a year, would allow people to generate power through solar, wind or hydro and sell any excess electricity back to the utility grid. The so-called "net metering" is in place in most states, including all except Utah in the West.

Tweaking of a couple of existing laws through amendments would allow the Intermountain Power Agency to build a third generating unit at the Intermountain Power Project near Delta by its goal of 2007.

Currently the agency owns IPP's two existing units, with most of the power being sold to California. Most of the power from the third unit is expected to be used in Utah.

The regulators of electricity and other utilities face a major change at the upcoming session. Sen. Ed Mayne, D-West Valley City, wants lawmakers to discuss whether members of the Public Service Commission should be elected rather than appointed.

A recent Deseret News/KSL Television poll found 74 percent in favor of the concept, but the commission's chairman and consumer advocates have said it would not be in consumers' best interests.