Utah legislators are preparing for an Oct. 30-31 special session to tackle up to a dozen matters, including a dysfunctional DUI fund that may keep new beer tax monies from fighting drunken driving and whether to sell the state's share in the Workers Compensation Fund.
House Minority Leader Brent Goodfellow, D-West Valley, said he's sent out a letter to House members asking them to set aside the last two days in October for a special session, which under the Utah Constitution can only be called by GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said Senate leaders believe there is need to consider only four to six items, not the dozen House leaders are discussing.
Two days were blocked out — a long time for a special session — because of the lingering issue of what to do with the WCF, said Waddoups. "If we don't deal with the fund, we could solve these other problems on just an interim day, in a couple of hours."
Waddoups said there is no consensus among lawmakers about what to do with the fund. "That's why it could take a day or two. We'd need a lot of debate to decide that one. If there was a vote today it's a dead deal — we'd do nothing."
On the table is a proposed bill floated in the 2003 legislative session earlier this year to let the fund "privatize" or sever its ties to the state.
Fund executives are pushing for the change so they can retain the $30 million in premiums the fund writes for Idaho customers. A judge there has said the fund is too closely associated with Utah and therefore operates as a "foreign" government competing with private enterprise.
Legislation pushed this year, which ultimately failed, would have removed Leavitt's power to appoint the WCF board of directors. With that action, fund executives believe workers' compensation can "mutualize" and retain its federal tax-exempt status, as well as keep its out-of-state business. The fund has until Nov. 1 to alter its structure or essentially pack up and leave Idaho, state leaders there say.
Even if lawmakers can't reach consensus on what to do with the fund, which has $220 million in surplus and is valued to have assets totalling $826 million, Waddoups said a special session is still needed to correct an error in one of his own bills.
Lawmakers decided to raise the wholesale beer tax from $11 to $12.80 on a 31-gallon barrel to provide more money for counties and cities to fight drunken drivers. Over time, the Legislature took more and more of the old beer tax money, earmarked for local DUI law enforcement, and spent it on other matters.
The wholesale tax was increased this spring, resulting in a retail price hike of about 1 cent per can. But through a drafting oversight, the Legislature didn't provide authority for the Tax Commission to appropriate the money to city and county law enforcement. Right now, there is nearly $10.4 million in the account, of which $2.5 million should be distributed by Jan. 1, according to state law.
"There's no way to get the money to local government. Without the change they couldn't get it" until after the 2004 Legislature adjourns next March, said Waddoups.
The WCF issue has gone from "one of the most important, far-reaching decisions" the state could make — according to Leavitt — to almost an afterthought.
The state spent close to a million dollars this spring on various studies of the fund, a quasi-government agency that acts as the insurer of last resort for businesses whose workers are hurt on the job. After releases of those studies, Leavitt actually recommended early this summer that little be done to how the fund operates.
Fund executives contend no action will result in higher premiums for everyone and hurt Utah-based businesses who also employ workers out of state.