As one of your representatives in the Utah Legislature, here is my report of highlights from the 2014 legislative session, which concluded last week.
State Budget: One of our most important functions is to issue a balanced state budget, making wise use of our limited tax revenues. Again, we balanced our state budget with no tax increase. This year we initiated a new approach to the budgeting process, taking a full week to scrutinize base budgets before considering allocation of new revenues.
We produced nearly $70 million in savings that could be allocated to higher-priority uses. We then allocated new revenue from Utah’s steadily-growing economy, devoting over half of the new revenue to education. Our total budget is $13.5 billion, with 42 percent going to public and higher education, 34 percent to social services, 13 percent to infrastructure and government operations, and the rest to executive offices, courts, and other state functions.
Marriage Law: Last December, right before Christmas, a federal judge ruled that our Utah law restricting marriage to one man and one woman violates the federal constitutional rights of gay couples. While many Utahns were shocked into resignation, and gay couples rushed into marriage ceremonies, I issued a legal opinion that the court decision was erroneous and should be appealed.
As a member of an ad hoc House committee appointed to review the case, I met with the Attorney General and his legal staff to outline the legal grounds for appeal and the content of the State’s brief to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. I also helped draft a supporting brief to the appellate court, which was signed by nearly all of Utah’s legislators. Oral arguments in the case are set for April 10 in Denver. Throughout this session, my assignment was to monitor the marriage case and all marriage-related legislation to ensure support of our state policy favoring traditional marriage. I continue in that assignment.
Education: This is one of our top priorities. The budget allocates $61 million of new revenue to fully fund increased enrollment of over 10,000 students. In addition, we provided another $62 million in new money to increase the Weighted Pupil Unit funding by 2.5 percent. We also provided $5 million to reimburse teachers for out-of-pocket expenses, and provided funding for teacher professional development, on-line and concurrent education, assessment software, licensed music therapists, State Board and parent review of curriculum, after-school programs, and suicide and abuse-prevention programs. While we would have liked to provide more, this is good news for education.
Election Reform: The House of Representatives concluded its investigation of former Attorney General John Swallow. This investigation led to Swallow’s resignation and to the enactment of stricter campaign finance and disclosure laws.
The Legislature also enacted a compromise that preserves our caucus-convention system of nominating political candidates, while allowing alternative access to the ballot through gathering a certain number of signatures, and expands primary voting to unaffiliated voters in 2015. I encourage all voters to attend their caucus meeting this week.
Healthcare: The Legislature refused full expansion of Medicaid, as contemplated under Obamacare. Instead, the state will continue to care for its most needy citizens under current programs while the governor explores possible alternatives with federal officials to expand care to additional persons left uncovered under the federal law. We did approve use of hemp extract for persons with intractable epilepsy, and we extended insurance coverage requirements for children with autism.
Air and Water: We provided funding and tax incentives for alternate-fuel vehicles and replacement of gas-burning engines and wood-burning stoves. We defeated a measure that would have imposed additional fees on owners of alternate-fuel vehicles. We provided for monitoring and safety of canals in residential areas and defeated a proposal to impose stricter requirements on water companies.
Military Veterans: We established the Veterans’ and Military Affairs Commission to improve services to veterans, a Veterans’ Assistance Registry to provide information on available services, and ordered a study for veterans’ centers on college campuses.
Law Enforcement: We reaffirmed rights of gun owners to bear arms, authorized trial hunting permits, prohibited unauthorized distribution of intimate images, increased funding for the Crime Victims Reparations Fund, authorized relocation of the state prison, expanded county jail contracting for state prisoners, and strengthened prohibitions against sexual contact with students.
All considered, the legislative session was a success. While other countries around the world struggle for freedom and security, we are blessed with peace and plenty, and a continuing tradition of representative self-government. Feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns using my legislative email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you again for your support.
Rep. Nelson’s District 68 includes Grantsville and all of Tooele County except for Tooele City and Stansbury Park; all of Millard County; and portions of Juab, Beaver and Utah counties. This op-ed was unsolicited.