The 2012 Legislature has begun, and with it being an election year, and with a slew of political players on the Hill angling for bigger office, political-science professors predict that there may be a lot of message bills that amount to chest-thumping posturing against the big, bad federal government.
Other legislators will have the unenviable task of how to divide up the state’s first significant budget surplus in three years and decide which recession-starved government programs will get a taste.
It’s also a session that will see a consolidated push by Democrats on education funding, and the first time a legislative session will be graced by Occupy SLC protesters, who are taking their experience living with the homeless in Pioneer Park and translating it to citizen lobbying on behalf of better homeless services and drug-treatment funding.
Election years tend to produce a legislative session where legislators try to get noticed, and this year is no exception, says University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank.
“This is a legislature which, in recent years, has been very keen on message bills,” Burbank says in reference to bills that are often just resolutions “urging” the federal government to act on an issue. “I think given the upcoming presidential election and the congressional election, I can see the Legislature feeling like they need to get their point out there and criticize the federal government.” Some legislators may especially be sticking it to the feds since they themselves are running for federal office, while other legislators also seek higher office.
Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, is challenging Gov. Gary Herbert for his seat; Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, are both vying to be the next mayor of Salt Lake County; and Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, is taking on 36-year-Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Last but not least, Sen. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, is challenging Carl Wimmer in the 4th Congressional District race.
Burbank says Sandstrom garnered clout in 2011 for passing House Bill 497, a controversial immigration bill that, among other provisions, requires law enforcement to check the immigration status of those arrested for serious misdemeanors and felonies. Any future immigration bills Sandstrom pushes could “boost his chances” for his congressional bid, Burbank says.
In a Dec. 7 forum, Sandstrom noted that current law in Utah only encourages business to participate in the E-Verify system, which checks the immigration status of would-be employees. Sandstrom suggested he might propose legislation that would allow the state to revoke the business licenses of companies that don’t use the E-Verify system. As for other immigration solutions, Sandstrom said the real change needs to be at the federal level.
“The thing we need is courageous leadership in Washington, D.C.,” Sandstrom said. “[Immigration] is a federal issue, and all we can do here in the state of Utah are Band-Aid provisions.”
Brigham Young University political science professor Adam Brown says Sandstrom does have bills in process that will help raise his profile as a congressional candidate.
“Sandstrom has a bill dealing with veteran’s benefits; he may himself be trying to push immigration legislation again,” Brown says. “There is an incentive to run a bill that will get you free press coverage.”
Another immigration bill could provide campaign fodder for another legislator, Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo. He may come out swinging in the 2012 session to repeal House Bill 116, the 2011 session’s guest-worker bill that sought a federal waiver by 2013 to allow Utah to sponsor guest workers in the state. Burbank says a move to amend or repeal the bill is more posturing than anything, since “there’s no chance the federal government would grant this waiver to let the state of Utah do this kind of [program].”
Better Still Isn’t Great
While some legislators may focus on tough-talk bills, members of the Legislature’s appropriations committee will be stuck with the tough choices on how to divvy up Utah’s projected $230 million surplus. At a recent forum, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, pointed out that Medicaid funding may require as much as $115 million from that surplus and that if the Legislature adopts something close to the governor’s call for $111 million to fund education growth, there won’t be much surplus left over.
While Hillyard applauded Utah’s economy in comparison to other states as being “an island in the middle of an ocean of tsunamis,” he said it didn’t change the fact that there wasn’t going to be enough money to bring all the agencies who had suffered during the past few years back to full strength.
Education funding will get a big bite from the surplus, and Democrats hope it will get the biggest bite, necessary to fund the growth in new enrollment in Utah schools, which, according to Gov. Herbert at a recent forum, is expected to jump this year to 12,500 new students, up from 11,500 in 2011.
While it’s not quite a tax increase, Sen. McAdams is proposing a measure that he estimates could put $10 million a year into school funding. McAdams’ bill would freeze the value of dependent exemptions on state taxes. Currently, the dollar value of the dependent exemption increases yearly to keep pace with inflation, but McAdams’ bill would keep it static from one year to the next so more funds would go back to education.
“It’s a way to wean us off that exemption,” McAdams says. “The exemption doesn’t grow, but your salary does.”
Occupying the lobby outside the House and Senate chambers for the first time, members of Occupy SLC will be speaking to legislators about increasing funding for drug treatment and rehab in the state.
“This is what Occupy stands for,” says organizer Seth Neily, who lived with the homeless in Pioneer Park until the protest camp was shut down by police in November 2011. “Corporate greed has had such an influence on the political structure that it has slashed the budget for public services.”
Neily says that based on the experience he and others had working with the homeless and seeing their struggles to find help from addiction, taking their protest to the Legislature is a natural move. They hope to advocate for more social-services funding and a lifeline to be thrown to the Drug Offender Reform Act, a program passed in 2005 that links nonviolent drug offenders with existing treatment providers instead of warehousing them in correctional facilities.
“Science has proven addiction is a disease,” Neily says. “And we should be treating it as such, as a society.”