SALT LAKE CITY — The gavel came down on the end of the 2013 legislative session Thursday night at midnight, ending a 45-day period marked by budgetary concerns and increased talk about firearms and clean air and the potential relocation of the state prison.
Before the bell struck midnight, lawmakers had put the finishing touches on a $13 billion spending plan for 2014, amid the uncertainty of financial issues from Washington, D.C., including the fiscal cliff and sequestration.
No major new tax initiatives were approved during the session.
The budget includes an increase in funding for education, a small adjustment in funding for state workers’ retirement benefits and some money for capital projects, including $29.3 million for a new juvenile courthouse in Ogden, $3.5 million in design funds for a new science lab building at Weber State University and $2.3 million for the Falcon Hill project at Hill Air Force Base.
Fiscal issues didn’t steal all the headlines. Two gun measures, one aimed at amending concealed carry provisions and another at drawing a line in the sand over the state’s right to regulate the use of firearms, consumed a large portion of the limelight as well.
The concealed carry measure made it to the governor’s desk, while the state’s-right-to-regulate question never made it to the Senate floor.
Lawmakers also grappled with the future of the state prison, voting late Thursday to finalize the setup of a group that will move the potential relocation process forward.
A number of clean-air measures were also debated, the most significant is a bill sponsored by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, pushing groups to consider use of compressed natural gas for bus and big vehicles, and outlining potential expansion of CNG stations statewide.
The bill calls for Questar to play a key role in that plan.
Besides money for schoolteachers, lawmakers also targeted almost $20 million in funds toward science, technology, engineering and math initiatives proposed by the governor earlier this year.
Educational issues went beyond funding for schools. One key proposal, establishing a new prekindergarten program for at-risk children or children speaking a second language, was defeated, despite a provision allowing private companies to finance much of the program.
The session had a few surprises along the way. One was that legislation banning smoking in cars with children age 15 or younger made it through both the House and Senate for the first time in six years and is on the governor’s desk for consideration. Another was a bill to ban cellphone use for drivers ages 16 and 17.
On the flip side, a tamer version of sex education, aimed at parents accessing online information to share with their children, sailed through committee and the Senate only to lose badly in the House.
The potential expansion of Medicaid benefits to more low-income Utahns did steal some headlines for almost a week, after some members in the House amended a bill in committee, which called on the state to eschew a federal expansion offer, and tried to force the governor’s hand on the matter.
That amended bill made it through the House and was promptly rewritten in the Senate. A final version, approved Wednesday night, called on the governor to take public input on the decision, as well as weigh the merits of two studies being done on the issue.
Social and health matters also consumed a large portion of the debate. Legislation addressing intergenerational poverty, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, advanced to the second year of a multifaceted approach. Legislation introducing new medicines in the Utah market and giving health care consumers more options was also passed.
Utah lawmakers still had time to draft a number of message bills and to talk about the slippery slope of personal freedom and government intrusion into private matters along the way.
Still, some observers saw it as a vanilla session, devoid of drama.
“It’s been a pretty quiet session,” Royce Van Tassell, of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said of the last 45 days.
House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, has a different take on the lack of controversy.
“The tone was great, some would say boring. I guess we can be proud it was boring at this point.”