SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah lawmakers are putting final touches on the state spending budget and moving through dozens of bills as they wrap up this year’s legislative session.
Legislators are likely to work late into the night Thursday, but they aren’t expected to pass bills related to several high-profile issues, including a sweeping school technology plan, Medicaid, gay marriage and liquor laws.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart came forward with an ambitious technology plan this year that could get tablets in the hands of every Utah public and charter school student.
Lockhart, who is not planning to run for re-election this fall, was seeking about $200 million for the project, which Senate leaders balked at. Gov. Gary Herbert threatened to veto the measure if cost much more than $26 million - the amount the Senate was willing to pony up.
The issue stalled budget talks until Lockhart pulled the issue from the negotiating table.
Lockhart said earlier this week that senators were only offering “change out of the couch cushions” to pay for the proposal.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the idea is a good one, but it wasn’t ready. He expects they’ll take up the issue next year or beyond, once they’ve had more time to study it.
GOVERNOR’S REACTION: Herbert said Thursday night that his office had already been studying the issue. “We were doing it before she was involved and we’re going to do it after she’s gone,” Herbert said. He expects to see more technology, in some form, infused in schools soon.
Legislators had multiple Medicaid plans to consider this session, including a path put forward by Gov. Gary Herbert. But the plans materialized too late in the 45-day session for legislators to work through the issue.
Herbert, a Republican, and Utah’s Republican-controlled Legislature are generally opposed to a full Medicaid expansion to add more low-income people on the program. They cite fears that the federal government’s offer to help pay costs comes with too many strings and may not be offered down the road.
Herbert instead wants to seek a block grant from the federal government to pay for about 110,000 people to buy private insurance. Because legislators are not close to signing on, he’s sending staff to Washington, D.C., soon to begin negotiating with federal officials.
Depending on how quickly he makes progress there, lawmakers may not take up the issue until a special session or until 2015.
Democrats are pushing for full expansion, arguing it makes the most sense. Lockhart said she wasn’t willing to back a plan that takes any federal dollars. House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said Republicans in his chamber were not willing to back the governor’s block grant plan.
GOVERNOR’S REACTION: Herbert said Thursday that the Legislature would have approved his plan had House lawmakers given it a hearing. But he said he’s moving ahead to sell the plan to federal officials and “cautiously optimistic” by the early talks they’ve had.
Once a federal judge overturned the state’s same-sex marriage ban in December, it appeared the issue would eclipse other debates this session. But legislative leaders agreed to quash any measures related to gay rights or religious rights this year, fearing it could impact the state’s defense of the ban as it continues to play out in federal court.
Several Republican lawmakers had been planning bills to protect religious rights they feared were threatened by same-sex marriage, but they agreed to stand down.
One measure caught in the moratorium was a proposed statewide anti-discrimination law protecting sexual and gender orientation. The proposal died despite several protests and meetings.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, the St. George Republican pushing the measure, argued his bill has nothing to do with gay marriage and said he’ll run the bill every year until it passes. Niederhauser said he’s glad Republicans stayed away from the issue, avoiding a major dispute. Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said Thursday it will be an issue until lawmakers address it.
GOVERNOR’S REACTION: Herbert said Thursday he’s “sympathetic and empathetic” to the LGBT community, but there are concerns from businesses and others to consider. He supports local anti-discrimination law, but is not convinced of the need yet for a statewide law.
A measure to drop one of Utah’s unusual liquor restrictions stalled without enough support. Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, was working on a bill removing a requirement for some restaurants to mix and pour alcoholic drinks behind barriers or in separate rooms, away from public view.
The requirement has been dubbed the “Zion curtain” as a reference to the Mormon church, which is based in Utah and directs members to abstain from alcohol. Supporters argue the requirement helps keep restaurants from resembling bars and curbs underage and binge drinking. Opponents argue there’s no proof of that and the requirement is unfair to restaurants.
Powell acknowledged this week that his bill is effectively dead.
Lockhart has said she thinks the “Zion curtain” is “weird” and an easy change the state can make to improve its perception. Orem Republican Sen. John Valentine said earlier in the week that Senators had little interest in changing the law.
GOVERNOR’S REACTION: Herbert said Thursday he thinks the state’s liquor laws are effective and that anyone who wants to get a drink can get one. “Other states are even weirder than Utah,” he said. “It’s just different.”
Associated Press writer Annie Knox in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
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