“The final week is always a whirlwind of activity,” Westwood said. “We work long hours and the Executive Appropriations Committee spends long hours finalizing the Budget and tying up all loose ends to make it balance.”
Vickers said one part that is still unfinished from the Legislative session is more than 400 bills that are in review that were passed by the governor.
“Each year there are a few that he will choose to veto, and once in awhile, the legislature chooses to override his veto,” he said. “That is all part of the healthy check and balance system.”
He said the budget would be balanced and approved before last Thursday at midnight when all things will stop.
“The bill we are debating at the time dies and will be voted on next year,” Westwood said. “To address large shortfalls in transportation projects, bills have been approved to bond up to $1 billion in revenue bonds at low interest rates. The State pays down its bonded indebtedness of $3 billion by about $300 million each year.”
Vickers said some highlights from the budget included:
• A two percent salary increase for state and higher education employees
• A four percent increase in the weighted pupil unit, which is the basic funding mechanism for public education
• Funding to cover the influx of new students in public education
• Funding to help cover student growth in higher education
• Funding to be used by both USHE — universities and colleges — and UCAT — technical schools, such as Southwest Applied Technology College and Dixie Applied Technology College — to better meet the needs of high demand business sectors in our state, such as high technology, advanced manufacturing, healthcare, critical thinking business graduates and more.
• Funding to assist with the homeless population in Salt Lake County which was a priority of Speaker Greg Hughes. There were specific needs in Southern Utah that our legislators argued for and were successful in obtaining funding for including:
o Dixie State University Human Performance Center will be funded for construction over a two year period
o Ongoing funding to assist the Utah Shakespeare Festival
o A one-time funding to assist Tuacahn
o Funding to finish off the need to preserve the Rockville historic bridge
o A one-time funding to assist the Utah Summer Games
o Funding to continue the successful stem action program at both Dixie State and SUU
“These funding pieces are always critical in helping sustain the growth and viability of our southern Utah communities,” Vickers said.
Westwood said that debt is short-term and Utah remains one of nine states that has a triple-A bond rating. Bills passing through the House were large and with much debate.
“State School Board will be given one school year to evaluate how effective the school grading for the schools is and to report,”Westwood said. “Utah Rural Jobs Act provides money to invest in rural counties only to provide capital to businesses in rural Utah who hire locally and improve the economic futures of rural Utah.”
Since last Tuesday, almost every bill voted on were Senate bills, he said, and the Senate is only addressing House bills.
“Funding for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Utah Summer Games and STEM education through SUU looks promising,” Westwood said.
HB 442, Alcohol Amendments, which makes changes to the state’s alcohol policy, streamlines and standardizes Utah’s liquor laws by improving prevention measures, updating restaurant and retail operations, clarifying licensing regulations and modifying the makeup of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Advisory Board, he said.
“It will improve training requirements for licensees, focusing on prevention of over-consumption and selling to minors, in addition to implementing new underage drinking prevention programs for eighth and 10th graders,” Westwood said.
The amendments also brings greater consistency to application of liquor law in restaurants by allowing three options for a buffer or barrier between the alcohol dispensing area and dining area, he said.
“Restaurants can choose to either leave the currently prescribed barrier in place, install a 42-inch barrier between dining and dispensing or create a 10’ buffer for minors,” Westwood said. “There is nothing unique about these requirements, and many states have restrictions of some sort regarding children near bar areas, including Washington, Michigan, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Arizona, New Hampshire, Indiana, Idaho, Rhode Island, North Dakota, Oregon, Minnesota, Arkansas and Alaska.”
The Legislature passed one of the most significant pieces of legislation for clean air in years, he said.
“With SB 197, refineries in the state are incentivized to switch over to the production of Tier 3 fuels which have a lower sulfur content and provide for much cleaner burning,” Westwood said.
“If everyone in the state were to use Tier 3 fuels and cars, it would be the equivalent of removing four of every five vehicles on the road. The investment of producers to change from Tier 2 to Tier 3 fuels will be significant, in the tens of millions of dollars, and this bill provides a sales tax exemption on certain products that are needed for that transition.”
Some of the other clean air bills passed this session include:
• HCR 5, a concurrent resolution to support the dedication of a portion of the state funds from the Volkswagen settlement to replace a portion of our dirty diesel school buses with clean fuel buses.
• HB 96, creating a requirement for operators of gasoline cargo trucks to prevent the release of petroleum vapors into the air.
• HB 104, which allows counties to use revenue from emissions fees to maintain a national ambient air quality standard.
• SB 24, extending the heavy duty vehicle tax credit to include heavy duty vehicles with hydrogen-electric and electric drivetrains.
The Legislature also appropriated an additional $1.65 million for air quality research and air monitoring, he said.
Two years ago, the Utah Legislature passed HB 348, which began the process of reforming our state justice system.
Westwood said that the point of that reform is to carefully screen those arrested for crimes in order to determine the main driver of their criminality: substance abuse, mental health issues or criminality itself. This will allow for diversion and treatment where appropriate, and improve our current high levels of recidivism.
“We also began the process of reforming the juvenile justice system this year with HB 239, based on recommendations from the Juvenile Justice Working Group,” he said. “These recommendations include preventing deeper involvement in the juvenile justice system for lower-level offenses, protecting public safety by focusing resources on those who pose the highest risk and improving outcomes through reinvestment and increased system accountability.”
Funds were appropriated for an electronic records system that will provide better communication among agencies and tracking of those in the adult system. It will enable judges to have access to screenings prior to sentencing and ensure proper placement of those more in need of help than incarceration.
“If this process is followed, we will see more people in mental health and drug treatment programs. Last year the Legislature passed HB 437 which, in combination with federal funds, would have given the state $100 million to help the very most impoverished Utahns, including the chronically homeless and those involved in the justice system,” he said. “A year later we are still waiting for full approval from the federal government to begin implementation. At this point we’re able to move forward with a small portion of the plan, giving us access to $22 million.”
Westwood said $17.4 million in new money for mental health/behavioral health treatment and $3 million for jail-based substance abuse programs was appropriated.
“This should allow us to draw down another $32 million in federal funds,” he said.
Sen. Evan Vickers’ 2017 Legislative Session interns were Eric Davis, on right, and Trevor Laursen, on left. Davis is an SUU student and Laursen, an SUU alumni, is now in pharmacy school at the University of Utah. Photo Courtesy of Evan Vickers