- Associated Press - Saturday, March 8, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Deciding where to put taxpayer money, whether to expand Medicaid and how to deal with a state prison tying up valuable real estate are issues likely to come up in the Utah Legislature next week.

As lawmakers head into their last week of the 2014 legislative session, here’s a look at some of the top issues coming up:

BUDGET

Negotiations over where to funnel state money in the next fiscal year have been sputtering. Stalling the talks is a $200 million proposal to equip each Utah student with a digital tablet without raising taxes, Senate leaders say. To date, a budget panel has committed to set aside $26 million, or 13 percent of the proposed $200 million price tag for the school technology push sponsored by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton. House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, proposes lawmakers pony up the full $200 million by digging into transportation money. Senate Republican leaders are putting their foot down on the idea, arguing roads badly need attention. House and Senate leaders say they hope to resolve the disagreement by Monday.

MEDICAID

Utah legislators will likely continue grappling with Medicaid through next week and beyond. Gov. Gary Herbert has said he’s willing to call a special session if lawmakers don’t agree on a plan before the session ends Thursday. On the table is whether to expand the program under President Barack Obama’s federal health overhaul or to pursue one of three alternative plans. Senate Republicans, House GOP members, Senate Democrats and the governor have each unveiled a separate proposal laying out plans to help varying portions of low-income Utah residents get health coverage. Many House Republicans argue against accepting federal money, which they say may not be there down the road. But because the federal government has offered to pay most of the costs for states that expand, Gov. Gary Herbert and Democrats are pushing to accept that money. They argue Utah residents pay taxes to Washington, D.C., so they deserve to have them spent back in their state. Even if the governor and Legislature find a plan they agree on, it will likely need to receive federal approval.

STATE PRISON

A measure that declares legislative backing to move the state prison is advancing to the Senate floor. It encourages a move of the 700-acre facility from a bustling high-tech corridor in Draper, just south of Salt Lake City. Draper officials and others have said moving the facility would free up the area for real estate development. They say the current facility cannot keep up with a growing inmate population and needs repairs. Some legislators are pushing to speed the process along, arguing the state has kicked the idea around for too many years. A Senate committee on Friday also approved a proposal creating a new board tasked with recommending where to move the prison.

CONVENTION HOTEL

Lawmakers need to make a decision about encouraging developers to build a mega-hotel in Salt Lake City. The measure from Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, would make more room for conventions such as outdoor gear shows and the visitors they bring. A Senate committee voted unanimously Friday to approve the measure, sending it to the full Senate. The proposal would offer $75 million in tax rebates to a developer building a 1,000 room hotel near the convention center. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and other proponents say it would boost tourism revenues and keep Utah from losing its roster of regular expos and conferences. But critics contend the state shouldn’t use taxpayer money to pick winners and losers in the private market, They have also cited concerns the measure could hurt existing hotels.

COCK FIGHTING

A proposal to toughen penalties cockfighting is heading to the House. Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, says Utah is the only Western state without a felony penalty for cockfighting, so it’s a destination for the sport. Animal rights activists say it’s a gruesome hobby for people who like to watch animals suffer. Others who breed game fowl say the current law is too vague and could dole penalties to those simply raising the birds for show. Davis’ proposal would make the sport a misdemeanor on the first offense and a third-degree felony on the second offense. If the House passes the bill, it will then go to the governor for final approval.