The NCAA Tournament begins in earnest today, but for political junkies like me, the real March Madness ended at midnight Thursday when the Utah Legislature adjourned. The 2015 legislative session was a remarkable event, every bit as riveting as the best college basketball game to the neurotic few who have politics and policy in their blood.
Before the session began, I made several predictions — my own tournament bracket of sorts — and it is time to see how I did.
I expected some sort of Medicaid expansion would pass, but the gulf between Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah proposal and the House’s Utah Cares proposal was too great to bridge. While Medicaid expansion discussions will continue through the summer, the 2016 budget is set and there are no more funds to allocate toward Medicaid expansion. It is most likely a dead issue, at least for now.
I was surprised and pleased to see Sen. Stephen Urquhart’s anti-discrimination and religious freedom bill pass this year. I thought that hammering out an acceptable compromise would drag into the interim. It would have but for the hard work of Sens. Urquhart, Stuart Adams and Jim Dabakis and the respectful, collaborative participation of religious leaders and the LGBT community in the negotiations. Kudos to everyone involved.
I hoped legislators would pass Sen. Scott Jenkins’ proposal to amend the Utah Constitution to explicitly protect the right of political parties to choose their nominees for political office. That was wishful thinking on my part. The future of Utah’s caucus system is now exclusively in the hands of the courts.
I correctly predicted public education would receive a significant funding increase, but not the 6.5 percent proposed by the governor. I also correctly predicted legislators would look like the bad guys despite appropriating record amounts to public education.
Legislators did punt on relocating the state prison, as most people expected. But the momentum is building to move the prison from Draper.
I predicted the Legislature would move to an indexed gas tax but that it would not raise the “cents-per-gallon” tax. It did both.
The Legislature honored Speaker Becky Lockhart, but not by appropriating money to pilot digital learning in our public schools. Instead, it named the Utah County stretch of I-15 after her. I think it should have done both.
While the Legislature refused, as I predicted, to raise income taxes, it did pass the largest property-tax increase in decades. I did not see that one coming, and I suspect many Utahns will be upset when they get their property-tax bills later this year.
Daylight saving did indeed survive, and powdered alcohol did not.
I thought the legislators would roll over for the cute elementary schoolchildren who requested that the golden retriever be named the state dog. They did not and barked down the bill.
A couple of legislators did try to slip through a bill or two that would have feathered their own particular nests, but as I predicted, their fellow legislators shut them down hard and fast.
As expected, there were a few additional surprises. For example, it was surreal to hear a conservative Republican senator voluntarily admit to using marijuana, even if it was for medicinal purposes.
Finally, Rep. Paul Ray’s firing-squad bill made national headlines that made the Utah Legislature look crazy. It happens every year. Ray’s bill reinstitutes the firing squad as an execution option, but only if lethal-injection drugs are unavailable. Call me crazy, but I would have voted for it. All in all, it was a good session. It was certainly a memorable one.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate.