One of the useful and enjoyable opportunities associated with legislature service occurs when citizens from home (Emery, Sanpete, or Sevier) visit the capitol and share first-hand information or opinions important to them. School representatives and county commissioners make frequent visits and help guide the process in a significant way. I express particular appreciation to them.
Last week we had a day devoted to rural Utah. There were excellent exhibits set up in the Rotunda which reminded all of the beauty and diversity available so close to home. This week the senior citizens were here. Many are long-term friends. Thanks for your visit and interest. You expressed concern about proposed budget cuts. I share those concerns and commit to support restorations wherever possible.
I am similarly committed to adequately funding public education, both secondary and higher. It is the most important thing we do in state government. An educated population is the key to the future and to a civilized world. We are still 10 days away from having updated revenue estimates. Until then, the budget decisions are on hold. I will keep you posted.
I had the dubious distinction of chairing the public hearing on the bill authorizing the killing of feral animals. The hearing room was filled with T.V cameras and persons with strong views. As the discussion unfolded the focus centered almost exclusively on cats. All who wanted were afforded the opportunity to testify.
In the end the bill was amended to the satisfaction of almost all in attendance and will likely fade into oblivion. We take for granted our right to be heard and to have our opinions considered. It is one of the great blessings of living in the land of the free. Public opinion matters a great deal in the formation of public policy.
Illegal immigration continues to dominate public discourse and media coverage. There are numerous bills which we will begin to sort and attempt to harmonize in the next couple of weeks. After a half century of inaction by the federal government, the problem has reached a level that is difficult to manage.
The House finally waded into the immigration topic. To date, it has proven to be the most difficult subject on this year's agenda. There are at least seven bills that address the subject.
We debated the first one on Friday. It has been referred to as Representative Sandstrom's "law enforcement" bill and is designed to bring all persons within our borders in compliance with the rule of law. Many of the more harsh provisions borrowed from Arizona have been amended so the impact will be less punitive and more respectful of local government.
I personally sponsored an amendment that eliminated provisions authorizing private law suits and damages up to $5,000 per day against local governments. These were ill-advised and their elimination probably contributed substantially to the passage of the bill.
Sometime next week, we will debate Representative Bill Wright's "guest worker bill. In my view it is a necessary companion to the bill adopted. Wright is a dairy farmer. Anyone in that industry as well as other segments of agriculture are acutely aware of our dependency on labor from the Hispanic community. That said, it is imperative that we know who they are and that they be properly documented. Moreover, they need to pay taxes and otherwise contribute to the culture from which they receive substantial benefits. I will advise on other immigration matters as we move forward.
On other fronts, my bill designed to simplify and shorten post-conviction proceedings in death penalty cases passed the senate by a vote of 27-2 and will now go to the Governor for execution. I am also advancing a measure designed to assist cities and counties in preventing closure of public roads that have long existed and are important to life in our valleys.
As usual, we have had a couple of "gun bills." One narrowed the "gun free" area around schools so that persons driving by would not be in violation. The other was in deference to John M. Browning, perhaps the greatest inventor of automatic weapons the world has ever known. I'm not sure we need a "state gun," but it was clearly appropriate to recognize his extraordinary accomplishments.
Finally, the bill keeping intact the regional senior centers passed the house. It is of major ongoing importance to public education in rural Utah.
At last we have the revenue projections for fiscal year 2012 which begins on July 1, and is the subject of our current budgetary process. Here are the numbers: State income from all sources is projected to increase by $263 million over last year. The projection is up $47 million over the numbers available in December. This is the best economic news we have received during the last three years and is better than the news that will be heard by most state legislatures in America.
So what does all this mean? First, it means that the draconian cuts I previously wrote about will not be required. Court houses in county seats will not be threatened. Public education, so important to every corner of our state, will be funded at last year's level with some additional money for student growth. However, other basic state programs and agencies will essentially remain at the same funding level as last year. That reveals the ongoing reality that we are not yet "out of the woods," and not yet able to fund all basic services at appropriate levels. For example, the last time we funded student growth at our colleges and universities was 2002. We have funded some education initiatives in the meantime, but we have essentially relied upon tuition increases and private giving. To their great credit, many private citizens have stepped forward with major contributions to partially offset the lack of public funding, but the tuition costs to students have continued to increase substantially every year. That is a trend I hope we can reverse.
On other fronts, the education committee on which I sit declined to eliminate the concept of tenure at our higher education institutions. If tenure were eliminated nationwide, it would be acceptable but if applied only in Utah it would put our colleges, and particularly our research universities, at a serious disadvantage in competing for the brightest and most able.
We continue to discuss the possibility of restoring the uniform sales tax on food with a corresponding decrease in the overall sales tax rate. The net effect would broaden the base and decrease the complexity. It would also be friendly to local governments. Rural legislatures have been most supportive of this effort.
Finally, the main immigration bills are now in the Senate. It is considering whether to treat them individually or combine them in a master bill. There may be some advantage to such an approach, but it is not easy to achieve when legislators have so much time and effort invested in their respective work products. Whichever direction is taken, it will be a challenge to harmonize all the provisions.
Things will move fast during the final two weeks. I will keep you posted. The days have been long during this week. I have been involved in some form of meeting from seven in the morning until eight or nine at night.
Next week will be no different. We are required by law to recess before midnight next Thursday, March 10. Between now and then we will conduct an enormous amount of business, including the adoption of an eleven billion dollarbudget with some 330 funding categories.
I am pleased to assure the citizens of Utah and those whom I represent
that the budget will be in balance. We willlive within our means even
though it will be difficult. Public education willreceive favored
treatment, as well it should. No area of state governmenttouches more
lives in such an immediate and direct way as our public schools.Final
budget decisions will not be made until the last couple of days,
thoughthe parameters are substantially in place.
Earlier this week, the Senateapproved House Bill 173 which I sponsored
and which previously passed thehouse. It clarifies the law on efforts to
close public roads that cross privateland. Except for dedicated city
streets, most of Utah's roads came intoexistence through public use
dating back to pioneer times. These roads existthroughout Utah and
provide access to farms and ranches and frequently connectto the 2477
roads that counties are trying to protect on adjoining federalland.
Supreme court decisions in 2008 adopted a new standard which
greatlyfacilitated road closures and compromised the ability of counties
to protectpublic access. The bill was supported by The Association of
Counties and TheLeague of Cities and Towns.
Immigration issues continue toproduce considerable disagreement though
some headway has been achieved. Oursolution will receive national
attention and could influence the approach takenin other states. We are
trying very hard to achieve the right balance. Fridaymorning we approved
a pilot project allowing migrant workers who are properlydocumented to
work in the state. The vote was unanimous in the House of
Representatives.However, at the time of this writing -7:15 p.m- we are
not in accord regardingother issues. I will have to report at a later