Report from the Legislature
This will be my final report. The last piece of important legislation passed the House 27 seconds before midnight. It was one of 796 bills - the most ever introduced in one session.
Many of these were "solutions looking for problems," or as Ronald Reagan once quipped, "Inventing a cure for which there is no known disease." Hopefully most of these were sorted out. Here follows a brief summary of some things I consider important in the 2008 Legislature.
Education: We found another $25 million for public education. This was added to the approximately 2.5 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit and the $1,700 salary adjustment for every teacher in the state. The downside is that these increases come with strings attached. I favored greater autonomy for local districts, but the majority was bent on micromanaging. Unfortunately, there is very little new money for higher education, but its turn will come. We did set aside $100 million to protect education until the economy rebounds.
Capital Funding Locally: To our good fortune we were able to secure $1.6 million to pay off Snow College's bonded indebtedness on the Sevier Valley Center. This was one of only two direct cash appropriations for higher education facilities. The other one was the Museum of Natural History at the
University of Utah. Fifty-four million will go to expansion of the Gunnison prison and $100,000 toward restoration of the Gunnison Community (Star) Theater.
Another $150,000 was allocated to the Sanpete Water Conservancy District to help fund a study designed to find a solution to the mudslide problem in Twelve Mile Canyon east of Mayfield and Gunnison. In this year of limited funds, District 70 faired quite well.
Appropriation of Mineral Lease Payments: Last year we adopted a formula for distribution of mineral lease payments related to exchange lands arising from creation of the Grand Staircase National Monument. However, only a portion of these funds were actually appropriated. That has now been remedied. Come mid year, some 25 counties will receive the funds that have been accumulating. Emery will be the largest recipient with something over $5 million. Garfield and Kane are also major beneficiaries because so much of their land was included in the monument. Sevier and other coal-producing counties will be appropriately compensated.
Help for School Districts in Need: School districts with assessed valuation per student below the state average will receive a state-funded base amount of $200,000 with lesser amounts for the more affluent. This will be of enormous benefit to districts like Wayne, Piute, Juab, Tintic, Beaver and others who struggle to fund capital improvements. While I sponsored the provision that led to this "base funding," the idea actually came from school superintendents in the area, even though not all of their districts are beneficiaries. They were "statesmanlike" in supporting the common good.
Immigration: The legislature took the advice of those who were encouraging caution and restraint until we see what the new federal administration does.
Some significant measures were adopted, but the effective date is July of 2009. Hopefully, the feds will get their act together before that date.
Agriculture: Two million dollars was funded for the war on cheat grass. This is the best war I can remember. Reducing the risk of major fires keeps the air clean, avoids contributing to global warming, aids the livestock industry, and keeps us safe. Conducting a war where everyone wins is highly unusual.
An animal cruelty bill passed but a felony penalty was limited to torturing a "companion" dog or cat. Farmers and ranchers can live with this.
Cities and Towns: Cities and towns will be able to bank water for future needs with reduced risk of forfeiture. Intent language which I drafted was adopted by both houses. It is designed to foster the stated objective while avoiding unintended consequences. The law governing incorporation of new towns was rewritten to require endorsement by a majority of citizens. This corrects prior bad legislation that placed control in the hands of developers.
Transportation:I-15 expansion and reconstruction in Utah County will move forward aggressively but not to the exclusion of other more limited projects throughout the state. I will continue to press for work on Highway 6. We will be obliged to bond, but will review the funding subject a year from now. I will not vote for a financial package that will compromise Utah's AAA bond rating nor its recognized stature as the best managed state in the Union. Moreover, I expect Utah County will be willing to tax itself to help this massive undertaking.
Office of Coal Mine Safety: I joined with Senator Dmitrich, in the House and Senate respectively, in sponsoring a bill which establishes the Office of Coal Mine Safety in the Utah Labor Commission. The legislation stems from the tragic loss of six miners at the Crandall Canyon Coal Mine on Aug. 6, 2007, and another three in a rescue effort 10 days later. The bill mirrors the recommendation of the Mine Safety Commission appointed by the Governor and on which I was privileged to serve. It is our fond hope that the newly created Office of Coal Mine Safety will foster a "safety-first" culture and augment and supplement the work of the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration. It is the end design of this effort that Utah coal miners be as safe as humanly possible.
Senator Mike Dmitrich Retirement: For almost 40 years, Senator Mike Dmitrich has represented Utah's coal country and beyond with extraordinary distinction and effectiveness in the Utah Legislature. His announced intent to retire caught me off-guard. He has been my friend and mentor for many years. His service has been long on common sense and without pretense, fanfare, or offense. He was always "straight-up" in his style. Whatever he told you, you could "take to the bank." He has been loved by thoughtful legislators on both sides of the aisle. His kind represents the best in public service. There are some things which we never want to see change. His legislative service fits that description. While we wish him well, he will be sorely missed.