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'Smooth' session ends

Politicians pleased with productivity, civility at the Capitol

The 2009 Utah Legislature could have been a political train wreck: harsh feelings over ethics fights, $1 billion shortfall in the budget, and bitter alcohol, nuclear waste and gay rights battles.

But in the end it turned out a near love fest, with the major issues, for the most part, dealt with in cool language and collegial compromise.

There was historic alcohol reform that brings liquor-by-the-drink to Utah for the first time since Prohibition.

Consensus on ethics (with a unique bipartisanship hearing process in the House).

A $10.6 billion budget most support, even with significant cuts in all state programs and possible employee layoffs and unpaid furloughs.

After years of study, a first step in providing uninsured Utahns with health-care coverage.

And all the while, controversial issues, like gay rights or fisherman access to streams or EnergySolutions offering the state $100 million to allow more low-level nuclear waste in Utah, seemed to just fade away.

"We haven't seen budget challenges like this for at least 50 years," said House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, as the Legislature rushed to adjournment Thursday night.

What was done this session "just goes to show that if you put your mind to something, and lock arms to move together, you can do about anything, whether it's policy, budget or civility," said Clark, who was finishing his first session as speaker. "I think we proved that government can be a cooperative effort."

"This was smooth, congenial and cooperative," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, who was in his 23rd legislative session, but first as a Senate leader.

Waddoups said that half a billion dollars from the federal government did not save Utah legislators in their budgeting — they saved themselves by originally trimming state spending by 15 percent. "But (the federal money) allowed us to keep a lot more people at their jobs, not hurt as many" employees and those who depend on state programs, like students, the poor, disabled and sick. The federal money was used to "backfill" dollars into agency budgets.

This was Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s fifth Legislature. "And it was the most remarkable that I've seen," he said. Lawmakers could have gotten twisted up on the terrible budget situation. "But they didn't waste time (worrying about) the economic overhang. They got to work" on a number of critical issues that he ticked off.

"Out of this office, we got practically everything that we laid out (as objectives) six months ago," said a pleased Huntsman.

Legislators did increase the vehicle registration fee by $20 (nearly doubling it). But that was the only general tax/fee hike that will hit most Utahns. (Court fees and a number of business fees also went up.)

"Success up here is built on good relationships," said House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, who, like Waddoups and Clark, was also in his first session as a caucus leader.

The majority Republicans "listened to us and incorporated some of our concerns into the budget — which by far was the biggest challenge up here," Litvack added. "The ($1.5 billion revenue shortfall over two fiscal years) was a pall over the Legislature. But we worked closely together. And I consider even the budget a success, considering our problems."

While a number of conservative legislators railed against federal spending, they still readily took $561 million from President Barack Obama's stimulus package to help balance the 2010 fiscal year budget, which starts July 1.

GOP leaders kept intact the state's $414 million Rainy Day Fund and warned if the deepening recession continues, they may have to come back into special session in this year to raise the state tobacco tax to make ends meet.

But even with all the federal money and careful budgeting by lawmakers, state, college and public school employees will still take a hit.

There are no pay raises for workers. Some may be laid off come July 1. At the least, many workers will get unpaid furloughs, perhaps up to 10 days. State and higher education employees will see their health insurance premiums go up by $30 a month and may see higher deductibles as well.

Public school teachers could see four or five fewer days of pay, as there will be a shorter school year.

Court fees go up, but the courts will stay open five days a week.

Some issues that became controversial debates in past years strode through the 2009 session with little opposition.

For example, legislators agreed to let Utahns keep loaded handguns in their cars, and keep weapons in their vehicles on private property — like your workplace parking lot — even if the business owners' employee rules say no guns allowed. Both Second Amendment issues were voted down in previous years.

Even though Huntsman announced halfway through the 45-day session that he supported the "Common Ground Initiative," a group of bills aimed at giving rights to nontraditional families, like gay couples, those bills were systematically killed in committees, never reaching floor debate.

Of course, the Legislature reaches into people's lives in many ways, and there are dozens of examples of that this session.

Just one: Legislators made it a crime to text or e-mail while driving a car. You can be pulled over and cited if seen by a law officer, and if you get into an accident and someone is killed because you were texting, it is a felony and you could do prison time.

As with every session, there is always work put off, issues unaddressed.

While legislators — following several ethics scandals last year — adopted half a dozen "ethics reform" bills, some lawmakers still wanted to go further, like setting up an independent ethics commission to investigate complaints against state executive bosses and legislators.

Still, more gifts to legislators will be disclosed because of legislative action this session. Retired legislators won't be able to give themselves leftover campaign cash and can't become a paid lobbyist for one year. Legislators and lobbyists alike will have to take annual ethics training courses.

But the actions taken still fall short of what House GOP leaders announced last year would be their ethics crusade in the general session — and many legislators say they should just ban gifts from lobbyists and get that issue behind them.

Huntsman's ethics commission moves forward, however, and the House Ethics Committee will study such issues during 2009, both groups making recommendations to the 2010 Legislature.

Clark said he had "eight items we wanted done" on ethics reform when the session started. "We got maybe three and three-fourths of them. But we'll keep working on it" this coming year. "And we'll do it in an unprecedented way — with an equal (partisan) interim committee" in the House taking on the task.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com