- Associated Press - Saturday, March 7, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah lawmakers have four days to square their differences on Medicaid, a possible increase in the gas tax and some of their biggest divides this year, in addition to working through hundreds of bills and putting the final touches on their budget.

Things moved at a fast pace during the second-to-last week of the legislative session. Lawmakers unveiled landmark anti-discrimination legislation, moved forward with a bill to resurrect the firing squad and squabbled over Medicaid-expansion plans.

Here’s a look at where some of the biggest issues stand heading into the final week:

MEDICAID

A plan to help thousands of Utah’s poor get health insurance remains up in the air as House Republicans continue to clash with supporters of Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s Medicaid expansion plan.



House lawmakers rejected Herbert’s plan on Wednesday and gave their final approval to an alternative on Friday morning. Democrats twice tried and failed to bring Herbert’s plan back into consideration this week.

The alternative expansion plan, proposed by Taylorsville Republican Rep. Jim Dunnigan, now heads to the Senate. Lawmakers in that chamber had instead backed Herbert’s plan, and Senate leadership indicated Friday that they may reach a compromise between the two proposals.

Dunnigan’s plan covers fewer people and costs more. Its supporters argue, however, that the future of the governor’s plan is unpredictable because it relies on a large chunk of federal money that may not be there down the road.

RELIGIOUS AND LGBT RIGHTS

Lawmakers unveiled a landmark LGBT anti-discrimination bill this week. After several weeks of backroom negotiations, they released a bill Wednesday that earned the endorsement of the Mormon church as well as activists for gay and transgender rights.

After nearly an hour of emotional testimony, the bill was approved 23 to 5 in the Senate and is expected to be taken up by the House next week.

Meanwhile, an alternative proposal is making its way through the House. That measure would provide broad protection to religious individuals, stating that acts done out of sincere religious belief can never be discriminatory.

While the Senate bill specifically protects people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the House proposal does not use those terms. Instead, it refers to “sex-related interests.”

A senator who helped negotiate the anti-discrimination bill has also proposed legislation that would allow government employees to refuse to marry same-sex couples, but only if they opt out of marrying any couples aside from close relatives.

It would require each county to have someone on hand to marry any couple, even if the county clerk opts out. It also states that religious organizations are not required to recognize marriages that go against their beliefs.

That bill was approved unanimously by a Senate committee on Friday and now moves to the full Senate.

FIRING SQUAD

A proposal to bring back the firing squad in Utah could be headed to Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk soon.

Rep. Paul Ray, a Republican from Clearfield who is sponsoring the measure, said a team of trained marksmen is faster and more humane than the drawn-out deaths that have occurred in botched lethal injections. His bill would call for a firing squad if Utah cannot get lethal injection drugs 30 days before an execution.

The full Senate gave their initial OK to the proposal on Thursday, voting 15-12 to advance it for a final vote.

That could come as early as Monday. The governor has not said whether he would sign the bill, which has stirred controversy.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

A bill allowing those with chronic and debilitating diseases to consume edible medical marijuana products is awaiting final approval in the Utah Senate.

The proposal from Saratoga Springs Republican Sen. Mark Madsen spells out which conditions and diseases are eligible for the treatment, such as AIDS and cancer, and it forbids smoking marijuana. Madsen said the proposal would offer compassion and freedom to those with chronic and debilitating diseases.

Many of his Senate colleagues have said they want more time to consider the proposal and that this may not be the year.

House leaders and the governor have said they’re concerned about the proposal and worry that people could use the law to consume marijuana for recreational uses.

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