SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers kicked off their annual whirlwind legislative session Monday with plans to dig in on tax reform, Medicaid and more.
Chief among lawmakers’ priorities will be setting a budget that sends significant money to education, with a hope to boost Utah’s low per-pupil spending and stave off a ballot initiative led by a group of business leaders that would hike Utah taxes to pay for schools.
House Speaker Greg Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, both Republicans, used their opening addresses to lay out some other priorities for the year, including affordable housing, congested highways and tackling the opioid crisis.
Lawmakers have more than 1,000 bills in the works and will only pass about 500 before the session ends March 8 at midnight.
Here’s some of the big issues they’re expected to take on over the next 45 days:
Utah lawmakers are still trying to determine how the major rewrite of the U.S. government’s tax laws will change the state system, which is tied to the federal tax code. But even before Congress took up reform last year, Utah legislators began making plans to revisit the state’s tax laws and make their own major changes in 2018. Legislators have more than two dozen tax-related bills in the works, including a proposal that would eliminate the 1.75 percent state sales tax on groceries. The proposal from Rep. Tim Quinn would also raise Utah’s overall sales tax rate up to 4.94 percent from its current 4.7 percent rate. Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson of Draper says legislators may make changes to Utah’s income tax laws, from tweaking or eliminating exemptions or deductions or even dropping the 5 percent rate.
Last year, Utah passed a law to adopt the strictest DUI threshold in the country, a 0.05 percent limit that’s set to take effect Dec. 30. The hospitality and ski industry panned the law, saying it could target responsible drinkers after one alcoholic beverage and exacerbate Utah’s reputation as a Mormon-dominated state where it’s tough to get a drink. Proponents of the new law, including the National Transportation Safety Board, say people start to become impaired with a first drink and shouldn’t be driving. Gov. Gary Herbert says he wants lawmakers to consider a tiered punishment system so that a DUI for a driver with a blood alcohol level above 0.08 will face steeper punishments. Lawmakers and a state substance abuse council couldn’t agree on how to change the law, but legislators are still expected to make tweaks and possibly lessen penalties. Rep. Norm Thurston, who led the passage of the stricter standard, is planning to remove a provision that barred newly-licensed drivers from having a drop of alcohol in their system after officials realized it not only applied to young drivers but to immigrants and older adults who get new licenses.
Utah declined to take up an offer under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid to its working poor, with the U.S. government picking up most of the cost. State lawmakers, concerned about their share of the program’s costs, instead passed a very limited Medicaid plan covering a sliver of the state’s poorest who are homeless or need mental health or substance abuse treatment, particularly those in the criminal justice system. But as the Trump administration has offered to be more flexible with Medicaid rules, including recently allowing states to require participants to work to get coverage, Utah lawmakers are planning to take another look this year. Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, is working on legislation that would expand Medicaid up to the federal poverty line. That’s still less than the Obama administration wanted but would cover a gap of Utah’s poor who aren’t eligible for any subsidized insurance right now. Spendlove said his plan would include work requirements and some kind of spending or enrollment caps.