Governor signs final bills; tax increases, criminal justice reform, veteran matters

SALT LAKE CITY – Gov. Gary Herbert’s bill-signing spree came to an end Wednesday. Overall, 528 bills were passed during the 2015 General Legislative Session, of which 495 required action by the governor. In all, the governor signed 487 bills, vetoed five, and allowed three to go into law without his signature.

“I believe it is more productive to work on bills with the Legislature during the session so the bills that come to my desk are more likely to be signed into law,” Herbert said. “Overall, I am very pleased with the results of this session. Working together for the good of the people of our state is the Utah way.”

Highlighted bills

The governor began a marathon of bill signing on March 20 that concluded on Wednesday. Prior to Wednesday, he signed Senate Bill 296, “Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom Amendments,” in a signing ceremony on March 12. That bill extends housing and employment protections to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community while also providing protections for the religious liberties of those whose views may be in opposition to the LGBT lifestyle.

Notable bills signed by the governor in the past week include:

Education funding and property tax increase

House Bill 2, “Public Education Budget Amendments,” appropriates funds for a 4 percent increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit and enrollment growth.

In total, House Bill 2, along with the anticipated revenues from Senate Bill 97, “Property Tax Equalization Amendments,” will increase education funding by more than the $503 million amount the governor called for at the beginning of the session. Over the past four years, the state has invested more than $1.3 billion dollars of new money into education.

Senate Bill 97 creates a $75 million property tax increase statewide. The increase will translate into an annual property tax increase of $46 for residential properties valued at $200,000.

Education has always been and will continue to be my top budget priority,” Herbert said. “Our young population is one of our biggest competitive advantages but we need an educated workforce to remain among the top performing economies in the nation.”

Transportation funding and gas tax increase

Stock photo | St. George News
Stock photo | St. George News

Among the bills signed last week was House Bill 362, “Transportation Infrastructure Funding.” It raises the state’s gas tax by 5 cents per gallon, bringing the current tax rate of 24.5 cents per gallon to 29.5 cents per gallon. The increase takes effect July 1.

The tax-per-gallon system will 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.

State transportation officials have said Utah would face 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.

“A strong transportation infrastructure has played a critical role in our economic growth and it will continue to do so thanks to this bill,” Herbert said. “This session we took the necessary steps to address the discrepancy between the funds we have set aside for transportation and the funds we will need to support our growing population and keep commerce flowing through our state for decades to come.”

Criminal justice reform

House bill 348, “Criminal Justice Programs and Amendments,” aims to reduce recidivism and improve treatment for nonviolent offenders.

Historically, Utah has maintained a modest incarceration rate while the crime rate has steadily declined. However, in the last decade, the state’s prison population has grown 22 percent. The state projected that without reform, the prison population would grow by another 37 percent over the next two decades, requiring 2,700 new prison beds. This package of reforms is expected to eliminate 95 percent of that projected growth.

Currently, the state’s recidivism rate, measured by the share of offenders returning to prison within three years of being released, is 46 percent.

Utahns understand our prison gates must be a permanent exit from the system, not just a revolving door,” Herbert said. “Just like every other area of government, we need to ensure we are getting the best possible results for each taxpayer dollar. We have taken significant steps to rebuild lives with a smarter, more efficient criminal justice system while enhancing public safety.”

Veteran-related bills

Gov. Gary Herbert signs three veteran-related bills on Veterans Recognition Day, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 30, 2015 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Governor's Office, St. George News
Gov. Gary Herbert signs three veteran-related bills on Veterans Recognition Day, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 30, 2015 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Governor’s Office, St. George News

Three veteran bills were signed in a special singing ceremony Monday. These were:

  • Senate Bill 275, authorizing the creation of veterans courts statewide.
  • House Bill 275, designating the portion of Interstate 84 that runs through the state as the “Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway.”
  • Senate Concurrent Resolution 6, a resolution supporting Vietnam veterans, acknowledging their contributions to society, and also recognizing they were often targets of “expressions of bitterness, anger, and hatred regarding the United States’ involvement in the war.”

According to the resolution, 28,000 Utahns served in the Vietnam War. Of that number, Herbert said during a ceremony signing of the veteran bills, 388 were killed while 14 are recorded as missing in action. Today, an estimated 47,000 Vietnam veterans live in Utah.

“I know we cannot thank our veterans enough, but we ought to do something to help. This legislation attempts to do that,” Herbert said. “I encourage all Utah residents to express their gratitude and support for the service of those who fought for our country in Vietnam. … We appreciate their service and the contributions they continue to make to the state of Utah.”

Native American-related bills

Herbert also signed three Native American-related bills during a special ceremony Monday: Senate Bill 90, “Utah Navajo Royalties Amendments”; Senate Concurrent Resolution 2, “Concurrent Resolution Regarding Navajo Water Rights Settlement”; and House Bill 33, “American Indian-Alaskan Native Education Amendments,” which establishes a commission comprised of state and tribal leaders to formulate a statewide Native education plan to increase educational outcomes of our Native students.

All too often, our Native American students lag behind their counterparts in education attainment,” Herbert said. “HB 33 represents a positive first step to closing that achievement gap and ensuring that our Native students have the education and training they need to succeed.”

Other notable bills signed by the governor:

  • Senate Bill 297, which allows county clerks to opt out of performing same-sex marriage ceremonies, but only if there is someone else in the clerk’s office who can.
  • House Bill 79, which enables a three-year pilot program allowing police officers to pull a car over if the driver or other occupants are observed not wearing seat belts. First offenders are given warnings, while second offenders are ticketed.
  • House Bill 11, which establishes the firing squad as a backup to lethal injection if the drugs needed for lethal injection are not available.

Bills vetoed by the governor Wednesday

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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