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Utah lawmakers launch series of pro-family bills

SALT LAKE CITY — In hopes of breaking down barriers to economic progress for Utah families, a bipartisan group of legislators showcased a handful of bills Thursday designed to strengthen families while boosting the state’s economy.

Thursday's presentation by the Women in the Economy Commission highlighted bills that tackle issues like sales tax on food, family planning services, child care availability, and paid family and medical leave.

“Everybody may not be on the same page with every bill pushed today,” said commission co-chairwoman Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, “but what we are committed to do is create a quality of life (that gives Utahns) an opportunity to succeed and an opportunity to strengthen their families and that all the barriers … are removed.”

Salt Lake Chamber officials noted they were “extremely supportive of the conversation here today,” and pointed out three bills they consider their top priorities — removing licensing barriers for military spouses, matching the federal tax credit at the state level for companies that provide paid family and medical leave to employees, and enhancing parental access to affordable and quality child care.

“Ultimately our bottom line depends upon the success of our employees and their families,” said Vance Checketts, general manager and vice president for Dell EMC and chairman of the public policy committee for the chamber. “It’s a huge advantage to individuals, to our businesses and to the state to find a balance between supporting our economy and supporting families.”

Many of the bills listed in the Family Economic Prosperity Priorities list haven’t yet been numbered or officially released, but Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna, is hoping that for her bill “the third time will be the charm.”

Nicknamed the "tampon tax," Duckworth's bill proposes to eliminate the sales tax from baby diapers, adult diapers and feminine hygiene products — products that are crucial for so many families and yet already so expensive.

She’ll also be chatting with Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, who wants to drop the 1.75 percent state sales tax on food — a burden he said is disproportionately felt by lower-income families — and instead swap it out for a .24 percent sales tax increase on everything else — except hygiene items, Duckworth hopes.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, worries that when military officers are transferred to Hill Air Force Base, often for just a few years, their spouses may lose the ability to help provide for their families because of red-tape issues regarding state licensing.

If someone is a teacher, or a caregiver for disabled adults or even a private investigator and had been licensed to do that in a different state, it shouldn’t take them months or even years to get reliscensed here in Utah, he said.

Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, and Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake and co-chairwoman of the Women in the Economy Commission, both talked about bills relating to paid family leave, though Weight’s HB156 would provide six weeks of paid leave for state employees, and Edwards’ would create a state tax credit for businesses that offer paid family and medical leave to their employees — mirroring what is already available at the federal level.

Another bill would address the fact that Utah is one of only seven states that doesn’t already provide family planning services to women who fall under the poverty level but don’t have insurance coverage, said Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, who added that if “deep red states in the South have figured this out,” Utah can, too. His bill, HB12, would provide family planning services to lower-income families through Medicaid for those who fall in the coverage gap — a way to support families that has a definite economic component.

Last year, Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, sponsored SB100, a bill to identify all of the resources that are available for parents and their young children.

Now, armed with that data, Senate Minority Assistant Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, Rep. Bruce Cutler, R-Murray, Edwards and Chavez-Houck, want to create real change.

Their bills would fund an evidence-based home visiting program for low-income mothers and their children, specifically evaluating mothers for postpartum depression; create an early learning task force that would review current services to make sure that every child is ready for Kindergarten; offer tax credits to companies that help their employees pay for child care and create an interagency governing body to coordinate between federal and state efforts to help children up to 5 years old.

Sitting off to the side, former Rep. Jennifer Seelig had a hard time containing her excitement as she looked around at the room filling with legislators, lobbyists and community members.

Seelig sponsored HB90 in 2014, the bill that created the Women in the Economy Commission, and the day’s meeting was a moment of sweet fulfillment.

“I’m just absolutely thrilled that the momentum behind this has continued,” she said. “These are data-driven pieces of public policy that benefit all of the state, not only women, but families. I’m seriously stoked.”