- Associated Press - Saturday, February 14, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Some of the Utah Legislature’s most divisive issues this year could come to a head next week as lawmakers hit the halfway point of their annual session.

Legislation that protects LGBT individuals from discrimination while protecting religious rights could surface after closed-door talks involving lawmakers on all sides of the issue.

A compromise that settled an intra-Republican fight last year could be unraveled in the Senate, where a hotly contested proposal to bring back the firing squad has also just landed.

In the House, the Republican majority is expected to dive into competing Medicaid plans to help the poor get health insurance, while the Senate considers a plan from Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

Here’s a look at how those issues may play out next week:

FIRING SQUAD

A bill that could have Utah resume using firing squads to carry out executions was narrowly approved by the House on Friday, sending the measure to the Senate.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, a Sandy Republican, said Friday that it was too early to predict how the firing-squad proposal would play out in his chamber, noting that “anything’s possible” in a legislative session.

Niederhauser said he hadn’t had much time to think about the firing squad because he was focused on other issues, but said that any method of implementing the death penalty should be done in the most humane way possible.

Salt Lake City Democrat Sen. Jim Dabakis, who opposes the death penalty, said the bill’s supporters should consider livestreaming the executions if the point of capital punishment is to deter potential offenders.

GAY RIGHTS AND RELIGIOUS RIGHTS

Supporters of gay rights have tried for years to pass a statewide law protecting LGBT individuals against discrimination in housing and employment. With a recent endorsement from the influential Mormon church, advocates say this may be the year their bill passes. In order to win support, they’ll need to weave in religious protections as called for by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Lawmakers and advocates have said it’s too soon to say exactly where that balance will lie, but they’ve begun meeting to hash out a compromise.

St. George Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart, who has sponsored the anti-discrimination bill for three years in a row, said he’d like to see a bill ready for a committee hearing this upcoming week.

ELECTION LAW CHANGES

The Senate could consider several bills next week to delay and repeal a 2014 law that overhauls Utah’s system for nominating political candidates. The law, which was aimed at increasing voter participation, has sparked a dispute among Republicans, with the state GOP suing Utah’s Republican governor and lieutenant governor.

Utah lawmakers passed the measure last year as part of a compromise with Count My Vote, a group that was working to dump the state’s caucus and convention system so candidates could instead compete in a primary election.

At least four bills this year would unravel that that compromise. Former Republican Gov. Michael Leavitt and other leaders of Count My Vote sent a letter to lawmakers Thursday, urging them uphold the deal.

GOP leadership in the House and Senate said Friday that they would stick to the agreement, but it’s unclear how many of their colleagues will join them.

MEDICAID

The governor’s Medicaid-expansion plan has passed its first test, with a Senate committee approving the proposal on a 4-1 vote on Wednesday. It now heads to the full Senate, where it’s competing against a leaner, less costly plan put forward by a Republican senator. Herbert’s plan would use federal money to help about 90,000 of Utah’s poor get private health insurance. House Republicans plan to consider both proposals and a few they’re cooking up on their own during two meetings scheduled in the upcoming week.

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