Utah Legislature wraps up final day of session

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The state Legislature worked to finish the year’s general session on Thursday after a relatively smooth 45 days in which lawmakers passed an immigration reform package, balanced the budget without significant cuts and even found time to declare a semiautomatic pistol as the official state gun.Other legislation changed Utah’s liquor laws to encourage eating while drinking alcohol and required state agencies to stay open five days a week, although employees could still work four days with staggered schedules.Lawmakers bumped a few controversies to interim study committees, including a prohibition on tenure for college professors. Other proposals will have to wait until next year, such as loosening the state’s gun restrictions or adding protections from employment and housing discrimination for gays and lesbians.The bill that drew the most public fury made significant changes to the state’s open records law, such as removing text messages and voicemails as public records. Legislative leaders, who pushed the bill through in the last week of the session, have promised to create a working group to revise it before its July 1 effective date.Entering the session, it was clear the immigration debate would dominate. Lawmakers worked on an Arizona-style enforcement law for months, trying to find a way to pass an equally strict law that avoided constitutional pitfalls.The promise of that bill prompted a diverse group of religious leaders, businessman and elected officials to form the Utah Compact, which urged compassion and a recognition of the economic importance of illegal immigrants.Although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn’t sign the compact or take a position on specific legislation, LDS Church spokeswoman Kim Farah says the church emphasized a concern for neighbors, a respect for the law and keeping families together as principles to consider.A vast majority of legislators are Mormons.With those competing interests, the resulting reform package has elements of both philosophies.The enforcement law is not as stringent as Arizona’s but is still likely to be litigated. Police would be required to check the immigration status of anyone stopped for a felony or serious misdemeanor. A person stopped for lesser infractions would be questioned at the discretion of the officer, and only if a person does not have valid identification.Balancing the heavy hand of enforcement is a guest worker program allowing illegal immigrants to work and live in the state with their families, as long as they have not committed a felony. The program requires a federal waiver and does not begin until 2013.Both bills have drawn fire from local and national groups, with lawsuits and boycotts threatened by advocates on both sides of the immigration debate.The sponsor of the guest worker program, Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, said the package is the best solution a state can find for an issue that is inherently federal.”We just feel like we need to make progress,” Wright said. “Our federal government can’t enforce it. Doesn’t it make sense for them to work with the states?”Gov. Gary Herbert said the process “deserves an A+” because legislators worked for months with each other and the public. The end result may not be perfect, but it’s a great place to start.”If we’re going to wait for perfect, it would never get done,” Herbert said. “The bills complement each other.”Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, agreed that the state needed to do something.”We passed some legislation that sent a message to the federal government,” Jenkins said. “It says, if (the federal government) doesn’t do something, we will and hopefully it’ll get the federal government off dead center.”Democratic Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said the package provides a balance that will help negate the negative impacts of an enforcement bill.”We passed immigration measures that are more than just punitive,” Romero said. “It bodes well for our state, and won’t hurt our image.Legislative leaders pointed to the budget as their greatest accomplishment. In a year when many states are slashing spending, tapping reserves or raising taxes, Utah’s budget is essentially flat with very few ongoing programs funded with one-time money.”We’re a small state, and we’re not flashy. But everybody says Utah is doing a good job,” Herbert said. “We’re kind of cutting edge for fiscal responsibility.”Targeted cuts are being made, most notably the closing of seven state liquor stores and the reduction of hours at other liquor stores.Herbert said funding education growth was a priority for him, and the Legislature provided about $60 million in additional money for public education.During the final hours of the session Thursday, legislators passed a bonding bill for $88 million. The bonds will pay for building construction.Herbert’s budget director Ron Bigelow said the governor is opposed to bonding as long as there is sufficient money in reserves to cover the costs.House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, the first woman to hold that post in Utah, said one of her goals was to give everyone an opportunity to be heard, even if it meant more bills and longer debates.”It’s what the system is about, hearing all of the voices and viewpoints,” she said.Utah lawmakers found themselves unwittingly wading into the national debate about gun control in the wake of the Jan. 8 Arizona shooting in which six people were killed and 13 – including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords – were wounded. Primarily, it was because of an attempt to honor John Browning, a native Utahan and the son of Mormon pioneers, by declaring the Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol as the official state gun.That caused a national stir because the shooter in Arizona and in other prominent shootings used semiautomatic pistols.The bill easily passed the Legislature, despite the controversy.Utah’s quirky liquor laws received a few tweaks again this year, most of them with an eye toward reducing overconsumption and encouraging people to eat food while drinking alcohol.The number of restaurant licenses will increase, although bar licenses will not. Both types of licenses are in short supply because of caps based on population.Bars will no longer be allowed to offer daily drink specials, although hotel guests will be able to get a single drink through room service.Legislators also pushed back against the state’s four-day workweek. A bill passed Thursday will require most state agencies to remain open five days a week, although work schedules can be staggered so many employees could still work four days a week.As the final day progresses, legislators could make a few more significant decisions. There are still a few budget decisions to be made, mostly funding for small projects, pilot programs or studies.Wednesday, legislative leaders agreed to provide an additional $7 million to the Department of Corrections to prevent the release of up to 380 state prisoners. The full Legislature needs to approve the funding Thursday.—–Associated Press writer Chi-Chi Zhang contributed to this story.

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