Reviewing the 2015 Legislature from a big picture perspective helps bring into focus the magnitude of what was accomplished during the just-concluded 45-day session. Cooperation between the House and Senate resulted in generational lawmaking achievements on several fronts. There was plenty of heavy lifting starting with S.B. 296, historic Anti-discrimination and Religious Freedom legislation co-sponsored by Representative Brad Dee and Senators Stephen Urquhart and Stuart Adams. This grand compromise brings together all of the various stakeholders in ensuring protection against discrimination in sexual preference, gender identity and religious expression in employment and housing. This, and companion bill S.B. 297, are the culmination of significant work over a period of many years and feature contributions from both the House and Senate members.
S.B. 296 and S.B. 297 recognize the rights of individuals to the expression of personal beliefs and prohibit discrimination against employees for that expression outside the workplace. Additionally, S.B. 296 forbids discrimination in employment and housing on the basis of sexual preference or gender identity.
The significance of reaching consensus on long-term funding reform for transportation infrastructure would have garnered bigger headlines had it been a less remarkable session. Representative Johnny Anderson’s H.B. 362, the first major overhaul of transportation funding since 1997, changes the current gas tax of $.24 per gallon to a specific percentage based on a three-year rolling price average.
The current gas tax has surrendered nearly one-third its value to inflation since 1997 and its purchasing power has been further eroded by vehicle fuel efficiency. The House and Senate each presented legislation addressing transportation infrastructure funding before ultimately compromising on a bill that serves the people of Utah now and into the future. H.B. 348, sponsored by Representative Eric Hutchings, will result in millions of dollars of reinvestment in the criminal justice system by changing the way we sentence and treat offenders.
Integral to this reform is the relocation of the Utah State Prison and the building of a new state-of-the-art facility capable of accommodating the types of treatment and rehabilitation programs proven to reduce recidivism and return offenders to society better prepared for reintegration.
Some may point to the inability to reach a compromise on the highly charged issue of Medicaid expansion as a session disappointment, but the joint announcement on Day 45 by the House, Senate and governor that they will work together to resolve the coverage gap created by Obamacare represents tangible evidence that the session generated sufficient traction for work to go forward on this issue.
The 2015 budget was achieved through collaboration and compromise between the House and Senate and many programs were able to see funding increases.
The State Board of Education had requested a WPU funding increase of 2 percent and received 4 percent, without opposition in either legislative body. This amounted to the largest increase in WPU funding in nearly a decade and was joined by a $50 million allotment for enrollment growth.
Higher education also saw a boost, with $170 million budgeted for new buildings and maintenance. State employees will also benefit from a 3 percent salary increase.
The process in the House saw some changes this session as legislators were given more time in committees to dive more deeply into the issues before them. This also sped up the floor process as House members were able to debate bills more confidently knowing they had been already been vetted in committees by their colleagues.
Throw in incalculable hours of study and debate, motions and substitute motions and hundreds of votes of conscience, and you are left with a truly consequential legislative session.