ST. GEORGE – By the end of the 2015 session of the Utah Legislature Thursday night, more than 500 bills were passed by state lawmakers.
Legislation related to using the firing squad as an alternative to lethal injection, along with LGBT protections and religious freedoms, made national headlines as they were passed by the Legislature. Other proposed bills, like those related to medicinal marijuana, Medicaid expansion and distracted driving died in session.
A total of 528 bills passed this year, according the Utah Legislature website – the majority of which are awaiting Gov. Gary Herbert’s signature.
Below is a list of notable bills that passed – along with others that didn’t make it – in the Legislature this year.
Tax increases: Gas and property
The sixth version of House Bill 362 passed during the final hours of the Legislature Thursday night. In a compromise, the House and Senate agreed to a statewide 5 cent tax increase per gallon of gas. Counties will also be given an option to implement a quarter-cent per dollar sales tax increase on gas via voter approval.
The tax-per-gallon system will also eventually be replaced with a sales tax-like system once wholesale gas prices hit $2.45 per gallon, which is projected to happen within the next decade. The gas tax would change to 12 percent of the wholesale price and be adjusted once a year. The bill caps tax increases at 40 cents per gallon.
The tax will take effect Jan. 1, 2016, and is meant to help fund transportation infrastructure projects and maintenance. State transportation officials have said Utah would be facing an $11 billion transportation funding shortfall over the next 20 years if the state didn’t find a new source of funding. The last time the state gas tax was changed was 1997.
Representing Southern Utah in the House: Reps. Don Ipson, Brad Last, Merrill Nelson, Michael Noel, V. Lowry Snow and John Westwood voted in favor of SB 362. Rep. Jon Stanard voted against it.
Representing Southern Utah in the Senate: Sens. David Hinkins, Ralph Okerlund, Steve Urquhart, Evan Vickers voted in favor of SB 362.
More than $500 million in new spending was pumped into public education this year. With the passage of Senate Bill 97, this new funding includes a $75 million property tax increase.
Utah hasn’t adjusted its property taxes since 1996 and has since lost $90 million in public education funding, according to the Deseret News. Property taxes make up 40 percent of the state’s funding for public education. The increase will translate to an annual property tax increase of $46 for residential properties valued at $200,000.
In a statement to Fox 13, the Utah Taxpayers Association said:
Even in a year when the Legislature had $700 million in surplus revenues, lawmakers have taken taxpayers for granted and increased taxes further.
Representing Southern Utah in the House: Reps. Don Ipson, Brad Last, Merrill Nelson, Michael Noel, V. Lowry Snow and John Westwood voted in favor of SB 97. Rep. Jon Stanard voted against it.
Representing Southern Utah in the Senate: Sens. Ralph Okerlund, Steve Urquhart, Evan Vickers voted in favor of SB 97. Sen. David Hinkins voted against it.
Medicaid expansion and health-related items
Despite efforts to salvage the governor’s Healthy Utah plan and efforts to push through the competing Utah Cares plan by House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, neither proposal made it out of the Legislature alive. Instead, the Legislature passed a resolution to continue state lawmakers’ commitment to find “a solution to the healthcare coverage gap” in the state by July 31.
Senate Bill 259, which would have allowed qualifying patients access to medicinal marijuana, was killed in the Senate Tuesday. The bill would also have allowed state-licensed individuals to cultivate and sell marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Additional regulations on e-cigarettes and vaping devices were also passed by the Legislature.
Criminal justice reform, related items
House Bill 348 implements various criminal justice reforms that include increased funding for rehabilitation and treatment programs for those with mental illness and addiction. It also turns a criminal charge of simple drug possession from a felony-level to misdemeanor-level offense.
House Bill 378 passed Wednesday and creates a “white-collar crime registry” similar to a sex offender registry. The bill will enable the Utah Attorney General’s Office to create a website with a registry of known white-collar crime offenders.
“Utah is a hot bed for financial fraud committed by repeat offenders,” Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said in a recent press release. “Many people in our state have trusting relationships with those who take their money in multimillion dollar schemes and many times those particular people have already been convicted of financial crimes.”
House Bill 11, a proposal to use a firing squad as an alternative to lethal injection if the drugs needed for an execution are not available, also passed the Legislature. Though Herbert has indicated he is likely to sign the bill, the ACLU of Utah has launched a campaign asking the public to tell the governor to veto it.
Seat belts and distracted driving
Police can now pull you over and ticket you for not wearing your seat belt while driving thanks to the passage of House Bill 79. The new law makes not wearing a selt belt a primary offense. Not using a seat belt was originally a secondary offense, meaning police had to pull a driver over for a primary offense first before a citation for a seat belt violation could be issued.
A bill to that would no longer allow drivers to be able to hold mobile phones up to their ears and talk while driving, or manually operate a phone, for that matter, nearly made it through the Legislature but died before midnight. Under House Bill 63, drivers would have had to use hands-free devices or pull over to manipulate a wireless device while in their cars.
Ed. note: The report that House Bill 63 passed the Legislature was in error.
LGBT rights and religious liberties
Passage of SB 296 makes Utah the 19th state to extend housing and employment protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. On the flip side, it also prohibits business owners from retaliating against people who may express religious views and commitments about marriage, family and sexuality that are in opposition to the LGBT lifestyle.
Religious institutions, their affiliates, and the Boy Scouts of America are exempt from the new law.
Lawmakers and religious officials, notably leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have said the new law strikes a needed balance between LGBT rights and religious liberties.
SB 397, which has yet to be signed by the governor, passed immediately after SB 296. It allows some government officials and employees to opt out of performing same-sex marriages on religious grounds but also mandates someone be available through the county clerk’s office to perform same-sex marriages.
SB 397 also prohibits government retaliation against individuals, such as clergy members, who do not wish to perform same-sex marriages or provide accommodations for such.
Both bills were backed by the LDS Church.
- Governor signs LGBT antidiscrimination, religious freedoms amendments into law
- ‘The time is right’; Legislature passes nondiscrimination, religious liberty bills
- Firing squad bill passes Legislature, awaits governor’s signature
- Senate kills medical cannabis bill
- Trouble for Healthy Utah: Committee votes in favor of opposing ‘Utah Cares’ proposal
- Vickers speaks on state budget, lingering issues as Legislature enters final week
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