By BRIAN D. HENDERSON
The 2000 Utah Legislature ended Wednesday with Democrats and Republicans pointing to the seven percent increase in education funding as the hallmark of the session.
“We stepped up funding in a bigger way for education,” said Sen. Pete Suazo, D-Salt Lake. “Although it took pressure from educators to do that.”
But Suazo pointed out that even with the increase, Utah ranks dead last in per-pupil spending. He said it’s a sign that there is still a long way to go.
Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said he was proud of the financial package lawmakers put together. He said although lawmakers matched the goals Gov. Michael Leavitt outlined in his State of the State address, it came at a price for higher education.
“I’m disappointed we couldn’t get more for higher education,” Waddoups said. “We’ve got great professors in this state I’d hate to lose, and we may lose some.”
The Executive Appropriations Committee managed to drum up an extra $1.5 million for higher education Wednesday, from a $4.3 million stash lawmakers held in reserve after distributing money to committees.
Aside from education, Republicans and Democrats differed on which issues were the highlights of the session.
Republicans championed the varied allocations for the tobacco settlement money, as well as funding to open an additional youth correction facility in Carbon County.
Rep. Greg Curtis, R-Salt Lake, said he was pleased with the budget as a whole.
“We’ve built a tough budget without putting the state in debt,” Curtis said.
House Minority Leader Dave Jones praised Rep. Judy Ann Buffmire’s legislation requiring insurance companies to provide catastrophic mental health coverage as “a huge accomplishment.”
Democrats hailed legislation that gave Utah a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
In other last-day action, the Senate passed House Bill 411 Wednesday by a 16-13 vote, which mandates an abstinence-only curriculum for sex education in Utah’s public schools.
Lawmakers made little progress with the school safety and firearms issue that was such an emotional topic throughout the session.
“I’m astounded. We’ve done nothing this year that would have prevented the tragedies of last year,” Jones said. “It shows that the majority party of this legislature has said yes to the NRA and no to the PTA.”
After a classmate shot a 6-year-old girl dead in Michigan on Tuesday, Sen. Paula Julander, D-Salt Lake, said she was disappointed that her Senate Bill 16 died quietly in the Senate Rules Committee. The bill would have held parents liable for negligence in storing firearms if a similar situation occurred in Utah.
Curtis seemed to speak for many legislators who said they were tired but satisfied that their efforts were significant.
“It’s intense, difficult and emotionally draining,” Curtis said. “But it’s rewarding.”