Gas tax hike, distracted driving, criminal justice reform; what passed, what didn’t in 2015 Legislature

ST. GEORGE – By the end of the 2015 session of the Utah Legislature Thursday night, more than 500 bills were passed by state lawmakers.

Legislation related to using the firing squad as an alternative to lethal injection, along with LGBT protections and religious freedoms, made national headlines as they were passed by the Legislature. Other proposed bills, like those related to medicinal marijuana, Medicaid expansion and distracted driving died in session.

A total of 528 bills passed this year, according the Utah Legislature website – the majority of which are awaiting Gov. Gary Herbert’s signature.

Below is a list of notable bills that passed – along with others that didn’t make it – in the Legislature this year.

Tax increases: Gas and property

The sixth version of House Bill 362 passed during the final hours of the Legislature Thursday night. In a compromise, the House and Senate agreed to a statewide 5 cent tax increase per gallon of gas. Counties will also be given an option to implement a quarter-cent per dollar sales tax increase on gas via voter approval.

The tax-per-gallon system will also eventually be replaced with a sales tax-like system once wholesale gas prices hit $2.45 per gallon, which is projected to happen within the next decade. The gas tax would change to 12 percent of the wholesale price and be adjusted once a year. The bill caps tax increases at 40 cents per gallon.

The tax will take effect Jan. 1, 2016, and is meant to help fund transportation infrastructure projects and maintenance. State transportation officials have said Utah would be facing an $11 billion transportation funding shortfall over the next 20 years if the state didn’t find a new source of funding. The last time the state gas tax was changed was 1997.

Representing Southern Utah in the House: Reps. Don Ipson, Brad Last, Merrill Nelson, Michael Noel, V. Lowry Snow and John Westwood voted in favor of SB 362. Rep. Jon Stanard voted against it.

Representing Southern Utah in the Senate: Sens. David Hinkins, Ralph Okerlund, Steve Urquhart, Evan Vickers voted in favor of SB 362.

More than $500 million in new spending was pumped into public education this year. With the passage of Senate Bill 97, this new funding includes a $75 million property tax increase.

Utah hasn’t adjusted its property taxes since 1996 and has since lost $90 million in public education funding, according to the Deseret News. Property taxes make up 40 percent of the state’s funding for public education. The increase will translate to an annual property tax increase of $46 for residential properties valued at $200,000.

In a statement to Fox 13, the Utah Taxpayers Association said:

Even in a year when the Legislature had $700 million in surplus revenues, lawmakers have taken taxpayers for granted and increased taxes further.

Representing Southern Utah in the House: Reps. Don Ipson, Brad Last, Merrill Nelson, Michael Noel, V. Lowry Snow and John Westwood voted in favor of SB 97. Rep. Jon Stanard voted against it.

Representing Southern Utah in the Senate: Sens. Ralph Okerlund, Steve Urquhart, Evan Vickers voted in favor of SB 97. Sen. David Hinkins voted against it.

Medicaid expansion and health-related items

Despite efforts to salvage the governor’s Healthy Utah plan and efforts to push through the competing Utah Cares plan by House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, neither proposal made it out of the Legislature alive. Instead, the Legislature passed a resolution to continue state lawmakers’ commitment to find “a solution to the healthcare coverage gap” in the state by July 31.

Senate Bill 259, which would have allowed qualifying patients access to medicinal marijuana, was killed in the Senate Tuesday. The bill would also have allowed state-licensed individuals to cultivate and sell marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Additional regulations on e-cigarettes and vaping devices were also passed by the Legislature.

Criminal justice reform, related items

House Bill 348 implements various criminal justice reforms that include increased funding for rehabilitation and treatment programs for those with mental illness and addiction. It also turns a criminal charge of simple drug possession from a felony-level to misdemeanor-level offense.

House Bill 378 passed Wednesday and creates a “white-collar crime registry” similar to a sex offender registry. The bill will enable the Utah Attorney General’s Office to create a website with a registry of known white-collar crime offenders.

Utah is a hot bed for financial fraud committed by repeat offenders,” Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said in a recent press release. “Many people in our state have trusting relationships with those who take their money in multimillion dollar schemes and many times those particular people have already been convicted of financial crimes.”

House Bill 11, a proposal to use a firing squad as an alternative to lethal injection if the drugs needed for an execution are not available, also passed the Legislature. Though Herbert has indicated he is likely to sign the bill, the ACLU of Utah has launched a campaign asking the public to tell the governor to veto it.

Seat belts and distracted driving

Police can now pull you over and ticket you for not wearing your seat belt while driving thanks to the passage of House Bill 79. The new law makes not wearing a selt belt a primary offense. Not using a seat belt was originally a secondary offense, meaning police had to pull a driver over for a primary offense first before a citation for a seat belt violation could be issued.

A bill to that would no longer allow drivers to be able to hold mobile phones up to their ears and talk while driving, or manually operate a phone, for that matter, nearly made it through the Legislature but died before midnight. Under House Bill 63, drivers would have had to use hands-free devices or pull over to manipulate a wireless device while in their cars.

Ed. note: The report that House Bill 63 passed the Legislature was in error.

LGBT rights and religious liberties

Both Senate Bills 296 and 297 passed the Legislature Wednesday night, with SB 296 being signed into law by the governor Thursday.

Passage of SB 296 makes Utah the 19th state to extend housing and employment protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. On the flip side, it also prohibits business owners from retaliating against people who may express religious views and commitments about marriage, family and sexuality that are in opposition to the LGBT lifestyle.

Religious institutions, their affiliates, and the Boy Scouts of America are exempt from the new law.

Lawmakers and religious officials, notably leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have said the new law strikes a needed balance between LGBT rights and religious liberties.

SB 397, which has yet to be signed by the governor, passed immediately after SB 296. It allows some government officials and employees to opt out of performing same-sex marriages on religious grounds but also mandates someone be available through the county clerk’s office to perform same-sex marriages.

SB 397 also prohibits government retaliation against individuals, such as clergy members, who do not wish to perform same-sex marriages or provide accommodations for such.

Both bills were backed by the LDS Church.

Related posts

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Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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  • fun bag March 13, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    taxes taxes and more taxes. This state already has more taxes that the 3 “liberal” states I’ve lived in. Cute huh?

  • Simone March 14, 2015 at 2:25 am

    Thank God the distracted driving law passed. I was getting so sick of being cut off by some dude or watch a car full children swerve wildly and brake erratically at 40 mph only to realize when I passed them or stopped next to them at the robot(when they actually saw the robot) that the driver was paying more attention to his text message then he was the road in front of him. Please, SGPD and others, if you see someone on their phone pull them over and write them a “lesson” they’ll never forget.

    • Mesaizacd March 14, 2015 at 8:44 am

      You’re an idiot of your think the distracted driving law will change anything. LOL.. keep living in your dream world

  • anybody home March 14, 2015 at 8:00 am

    “Religious institutions, their affiliates, and the Boy Scouts of America are exempt from the new law.”

    And there you have it. A gutless new law in Utah. Ring the chimes!

  • Mesaizacd March 14, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Anybody home. LOL. Taxing the boy Scouts will make you feel better… Shut up already….. moron

  • tcrider March 14, 2015 at 10:25 am

    I really wish local law enforcement would start nabbing, not only texters and ldiots talking while they are driving, but how about people who don’t use blinkers and that roll through stop signs, this city is the absolute worst I have ever driven in.
    Every time I ride in this city, I can document an incident, just this morning, what appeared to be a 90 year old or someone that did not look under late eighties, was cruising down mall drive with the blinker on and not turning. every day .

  • beacon March 14, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    Legislators like to make it sound like Utah’s $.245 cent per gallon tax has been on the books for so long and other states have additional taxes that up theirs to higher than ours, but generally we’ve been higher since 1997. What have we done with it. In St. George it seems we’re just seeing more roads that perhaps aren’t even needed. They’re still pushing a Northern Corridor (aka Washing Parkway) through the tortoise reserve that isn’t needed and won’t even relieve the traffic they assert will be a problem. Their own reports attest to that But the road will cost between $50 million to over $100 million depending on the route. Let’s get some people who can spend our taxpayer money well rather than making excuses for why they need more!

  • ladybugavenger March 15, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    Since gas prices went down, they found a way to increase it again. I couldn’t get past the part about counties being able to tax 25 cents to the dollar if voter approved. Is that our county officials that cast the vote? Should just make marijuana legal and make millions, potentially billions in taxes 🙂

  • sagemoon March 16, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Who is this Rep. Jon Stanard? I want him representing me.

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