The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: The 2013 Utah State Legislative Round-up

12 March 2013 Written by  

Whew!

We have nearly reached the end of another roller coaster, 45-day Utah legislative session! It’s always an exciting, busy, and sometimes frustrating process. As we wind down, we thought we would share with you some of the good, the bad, and the really ugly from this year’s session.

Let’s just go ahead and start with the UGLY.

One of our most difficult defeats this year was around SB 71 which would have provided funding for preschool for at-risk children. We have been working on this issue for several years with Granite School District and other partners. The pilot program through Granite Preschool has proven over a multi-year study that WE CAN close the achievement gap for at-risk kids!

The bill sponsor, Senator Aaron Osmond, was an outstanding champion for kids and worked tirelessly with potential funders, coalition partners, and fellow lawmakers to garner support. Senator Margaret Dayton said that closing the achievement gap for at-risk kids is “not a noble goal.” Other vocal minorities claimed that spending money on preschool was like putting money “down a rat hole.” Despite the fact that we had national and local data – not to mention doing the right thing for kids – on our side, these incredibly misguided and silly arguments helped defeat the bill in the Senate by a vote of 11-18.

But this fight is not over. In fact, it’s just beginning. Senator Osmond isn’t giving up, and neither are we.

Some Good News in Early Childhood Education: The importance of early childhood education is such a hot topic lately, even Jon Stewart talked about it! The legislature did a great thing by providing ongoing funding of $7.5 million for Optional Extended Day Kindergarten. This is the first year that funding was ongoing rather than one-time.

Health: In health care, the state of Utah made some important steps.  The state passed important legislation, HB 292 Premium Assistance Under Medicaid and CHIP sponsored by Representative Dean Sanpei, that will reduce churn between private and public health coverage programs, simplify the process for families to attain coverage, allow families to maintain the same doctor regardless of their income, and reduce gaps in coverage for families.  

The state took steps to better align SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps) and Medicaid eligibility rules which will make it easier for families to apply for these programs and reduce administrative costs to the state.  

Finally, legislation was passed creating regulation and training requirements for “health navigators.” These navigators will help families understand the changes coming with healthcare reform and also ensure that families receive quality assistance in selecting the best health coverage plan and protect their personal information in the process.  

Tax and Budget: Last year we published “What’s Eating the General Fund” report, and it seems to be having an effect on our legislature. There is increasing awareness about how the practice of providing too many tax exemptions is harmful to our state’s budget.

Unfortunately, there still is little political will to increase revenue for the state in the form of getting rid of some of these harmful exemptions and raising taxes where people and corporations can afford to pay a little more. The increased exemptions, along with the lack of revenue, is making it difficult to meet the needs of Utah children, particularly those in low-income families. We have yet to see what the impact of sequestration will be on the state budget. The state could lose several million in federal funds due to sequestration. Some estimates put that figure at $40 million over the next year. Excluding education, the federal government provides 70% of funding for programs that directly benefit children in Utah.

One of the best pieces of news we have to share this year is that the State Earned Income Tax Credit legislation, HB 197 sponsored by Representative Eric Hutchings, passed in the House with a strong bipartisan vote. Due to the limited time remaining in the session and the tight budget, HB 197 will likely not be heard in the Senate. However, the bill creates an important foundation going forward next year.

Poverty: Following up on last year’s Intergenerational Poverty Mitigation Act, Senator Reid introduced SB 53 Intergenerational Welfare Reform that creates the Utah Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission and the Intergenerational Poverty Advisory Committee. The Commission will examine and analyze shared data and information regarding intergenerational poverty; identify and develop effective plans, programs; and make recommendations to help at-risk children escape the cycle of poverty. Additionally, the Commission is required to create an ongoing five and ten-year plan, which is updated annually, containing measurable goals and benchmarks, including future action needed to attain those goals and benchmarks. The bill passed in both the House and Senate and is awaiting signature by the governor.

It's critical to remember that SB 53 is just one more step. Advocacy groups in particular will have an important role to play in driving policymakers to use the data and develop evidence-based solutions. We will continue to ask "Is it good for kids?"as policies and programs are debated. And to remind policymakers that no child ever did anything to make themselves poor. To learn more about the impact of intergenerational poverty on kids, you can check out this five-minute video.

Thank you to everyone who emailed or called legislators during the past 42 days. From health care to child safety, we have been able to win important policy victories for Utah children over the years, because concerned Utahns stood with us in defense of kids. If you are willing to speak up on behalf of our children during the coming year, please sign up for our email alerts by clicking here, and following us on Facebook and Twitter.  We will keep you informed about the issues and ways that you can be involved and make a difference.

And thank you for your support and stepping up to be the voice of Utah Children!

April Young Bennett 300April Young Bennett, Communications Director, joined the organization in 2014. She received her Master of Public Administration from the University of Arizona and her Bachelor in Community Health Education from Utah State University. Prior to joining Voices for Utah Children, April worked for the Utah Department of Health for over a decade, addressing health disparities among minorities and other underserved Utahns. She completed internships and fellowships with the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System, the Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy and the U.S. Senate.