Utah open records bill signed into law

The Salt Lake Tribune

One of last year’s hottest political battles — altering Utah’s open records law, the Government Records Access and Management Act — reached a final, quiet end.

Gov. Gary Herbert announced Monday that three days earlier he signed into law SB177, a non-controversial tweaking of GRAMA.

That bill grew out of a fierce battle the previous year on HB477, which largely gutted GRAMA. It was passed shortly after it was unveiled with limited review and public comment — which led to huge public protests and angry editorials.

Under pressure, the Legislature took the unusual step to repeal HB477, and set up a working group to review any needed changes during the year. SB177 was the result, and was so non-controversial that no public witness testified on it in a House committee hearing. No one voted against it in the House or Senate.

The bill includes language to make clear that in balancing tests on whether a record should be disclosed or kept private, “a tie goes to disclosure,” said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, sponsor of the bill.

It also orders creation of online training for public-records officers statewide and an ombudsman to help the public file GRAMA requests. It also clarifies that public records include those communications by public officials that are made as part of their official duties or while doing public business.

The governor has now signed 409 of the 449 bills and concurrent resolutions passed by the Legislature, and has vetoed one — on sex education in schools. Wednesday is the final day for Herbert to decide whether to sign bills, veto them or allow them to become law without his signature.

Mark Shurtleff expects another 5-4 decision in health care case

Deseret News

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff predicts a 5-4 decision, one way or the other, in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case on the federal health care reform law.

“I’m feeling pretty good about it actually,” he said after Monday morning’s oral arguments.

Though not arguing the case, Shurtleff has a front-row seat in the courtroom as Utah is among 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business challenging the constitutionality of what some have dubbed “Obamacare.”

“This may be the most important court hearing of our lifetime because of the impact it will have on the reach of the federal government and our individual liberties,” he told KSL Radio.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act changes certain aspects of the private health insurance industry, increases coverage of pre-existing conditions and aims to extend insurance coverage to more than 30 million Americans. It requires individuals to buy insurance or pay a penalty beginning in 2014.

Obama signed it into law two years ago last Friday after Congress approved it mostly along party lines.

As of January, two of four federal appellate courts had upheld the law; one declared the individual mandate unconstitutional and a fourth ruled the issue couldn’t be decided until taxpayers begin paying penalties.

The Supreme Court scheduled an unprecedented six hours of oral arguments over three days, concluding Wednesday. A decision is expected in June. Former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement is representing the states.

Monday’s hearing centered on whether an obscure 1867 tax law prohibits lawsuits, like the one challenging the health care law, from going forward until someone actually pays the penalty for not buying health insurance.

Shurtleff said the justices asked probing questions about that issue Monday.

“They’ve done their homework. They were very engaged,” he said.

Should the court decide that law applies, the case would not be “ripe” until 2015. But Shurtleff said he doesn’t think the court will go that direction, though it would be a “political out” for the justices on a “politically charged” issue in an election year.

Tuesday’s arguments are expected to focus on one of the more controversial aspects of the law: the mandate for individuals to buy health insurance. The Utah Legislature passed a bill in 2010 that expressly prohibits a Utah resident from being required to purchase health insurance, which gave the state standing in the Supreme Court case.

“If the (federal government) can get away with this, frankly they can get away with anything,” Shurtleff said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, expressed the same sentiment Monday, saying it would allow the government to tell people how much to spend on leafy green vegetables for health reasons.

“If Congress is given the power, there’s no logical stopping point,” he said. “It leads to tyranny if you have unfettered power at the federal level.”

Like Shurtleff, Lee predicts a 5-4 decision in which the Supreme Court finds the health care law goes too far and invalidates the individual mandate.

 

Some sticking points remain in Utah’s $13 billion budget

The Salt Lake Tribune

About a dozen of the thorniest issues remain as lawmakers try to wrap up the state’s $13 billion budget heading into the final week of the 2012 legislative session.

One of the items still on the negotiating table is a program to provide health care coverage for several hundred children with autism. It has strong support among House leaders, but gets a cool reception in the Senate.

A push initially for a mandate to cover children with autism met stiff opposition from insurance companies. Instead, Rep. Rhonda Menlove, R-Garland, and others negotiated a pilot program to cover about 700 children through the public employees insurance program, Medicaid, and voluntary contributions from insurance companies.

Legislative leaders are also trying to sort out how much money to put toward social service programs, such as easing a waiting list of disabled Utahns needing assistance and providing home meal service for the elderly.

“This gets to be a little bit tough right now, because every program out there is a good program,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. “You wonder how government grows? This is how government grows, because these are good programs.

“So far we’ve done a pretty good job of tempering our appetites,” Jenkins said.

Legislators have built into the budget framework the $23 million anticipated from a nationwide mortgage fraud settlement. A resource center for homeless youth, St. Anne’s Lantern House, the Wendell Apartments and an emergency winter shelter would each get $500,000 of that. Another $2 million would go to mortgage fraud prevention.

Asked if he thought enough was being spent on housing, House budget chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville, said, “It doesn’t all have to go to mortgages.”

Legislators have budgeted $129 million in new money for public and higher education, shy of the $134 million the governor recommended in his budget, although that amount is expected to grow.

Legislators are recommending covering costs of the 12,500 new students expected to enter Utah schools, plus a 1.16 percent increase in per-pupil spending, slightly more than the governor suggested.

However, that would not be enough to give teachers a pay raise once the added money is consumed by pension payments. And teachers could see their take-home pay dip if health premiums rise again.

“There’s potential for that,” said Kory Holdaway, government relations director for the Utah Education Association, although it would vary from district to district.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said the budget process isn’t done yet and he would like to see more going to students and teachers.

“We all would like to see more,” said Stephenson, Senate chairman of the education budget committee. “I think everyone would. It’s just a balancing act.”

He said he would especially like to see more money put into software and technology to help teachers be more effective.

Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said that so far Democrats are happy with the budget.

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