Major issues are beginning to crystalize and dominate debate on the hill. None looms larger than addressing the rising cost of healthcare and the absence of insurance coverage for an increasing number of our citizens.
The simple truth is that our society cannot continue to absorb double-digit increases in medical costs on single-digit increases in personal income. Unless we check this trend, the uninsured may surpass as personsthose with insurance and an ever-increasing number of persons will simply show up at the emergency room for treatment.
House Bill 133 sets in motion a process that includes appointment of a task force that will work with medical providers, the insurance industry, and public officials to design health insurance that is most affordable, more universally available, and more portable as persons change jobs. This is a necessary task, but absolutely necessary. Moreover, we need to do it while we have a friendly voice, Mike Leavitt (former Utah Governor), heading the department of Health and Human Services in Washington D.C.
The various animal cruelty bills are coming to a head. They are of particular concern to rural Utah where animal husbandry is such a dominant part of everyday life. As is often the case, the challenge is to find the right balance. There are some who find no distinctions between animals and humans. On the other hand are those who wish for no restraints. Senate Bill 117 is somewhere in the middle. It distinguishes between torture and abuse and neglect. It graduates the penalties based upon the nature of the conduct and whether an offense is repeated. It has broad support in the farming and ranching communities and has received the unanimous support of the rural caucus. It appears we will strengthen the law but hopefully not over do it.
There are two bills moving through the processÃ¯Â¿Â½one in the Senate and one in the House. They continue to look more and more alike. Each will likely provide for one felony offenseÃ¯Â¿Â½torture of a companion animal limited to a cat or dog. It's a compromise acceptable to the major advocates on both sides.
Other items of interest include a bill which would return to the county of origin a small amount of the severance tax on certain minerals, and the ongoing debate about reimbursement for violators of state law serving in county jails. I come down on the side of the counties on this issue. The subject concerns both costs of incarceration and medical care. I will address these as the subject becomes more clear.
We adopted a resolution to try to slow down a massive expansion of wilderness areas and rejected a bill which contemplated training, testing, and licensing all who operate motor boats even though they may have been doing so for several decades. If it were more restricted it might have passed.
Revenue projections out last Monday are some $360 million short of those released in December. We will have to tighten our belts. Education funding will remain the top priority, but the numbers will likely be less than last year. Discretionary projects will not fare as well. Tax-cuts are unlikely. We will not dip into the "Rainy Day Fund", since we cannot project the length of the economic down-turn and want to save resources for next year.
CAPITAL OUTLAY EQUALIZATION
A legislative task force that worked through the summer failed to come to an agreement. Rapidly growing school districts along the Wasatch front are looking for money. I understand the crunch, but I also believe that growth not only produces challenges, but usually provides the economic vibrancy to meet those challenges. They may have to bond and build, but in the long run they should be ok. I am more concerned about the districts with stagnant or declining enrollment who generate inadequate funding to replace old or decaying buildings.