Medicaid expansion, firing squads and daylight saving time on Utah lawmakers' 2015 agenda

Associated Press

When Utah lawmakers convene for their 2015 legislative session Monday, they will face a packed agenda that will include debates over Medicaid expansion, the possible return of firing squads and whether to eliminate daylight saving time.

Those issues will accompany hundreds of other bills lawmakers are expected to drill through during their 45-day session.

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Here's a look at some of noteworthy issues lawmakers will dive into over the next seven weeks:

MEDICAID

Utah leaders are grappling with how they'll help thousands of poor Utah residents get health coverage under Medicaid, in what's expected to be one of the most hotly debated issues of the session.

Under President Barack Obama's health care law, the federal government will pay most of the cost for states that expand the program to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, about $32,000 annually for a family of four. In Utah, that's about 90,000 people.

Rather than having more people on Medicaid, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert wants to use federal money that would have been spent on the program to instead help that population pay for private insurance. Herbert, a Republican, has negotiated a tentative deal with the Obama administration for such a plan, but he needs Utah lawmakers to approve.

Many conservatives in the Republican-controlled Legislature are resistant to the idea, citing concerns about whether the federal government will follow-through on its promise to help and the long-term costs to the state, which are estimated to grow to $78 million a year.

Legislative leaders say they plan to do something to help, but a committee studying the issue rejected Herbert's plan in December and instead recommended two other plans to lawmakers. The alternatives will cost less, cover fewer people and require the state to share a greater portion of the costs with the federal government.

Herbert's Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a former House member, has been meeting with lawmakers to reach a compromise. If the governor's able to marshal support among the few Democrats and enough moderate Republicans, he may get a deal.

FIRING SQUADS

Botched lethal injections and shortages of the drugs used in executions in recent years have led many state legislatures to take a hard look at their death penalty procedures. One Utah lawmaker has proposed reviving the use of the firing squad in Utah.

The state banned the practice a decade ago, citing the excessive media attention it gave to condemned inmates, but Clearfield Republican Rep. Paul Ray says he thinks it's the most efficient option. Ray says the firing squad, with trained marksman and a restrained inmate, offers the swifter, more humane death with less risk of complications.

Critics have disputed that, arguing firing squads are not without risks and could be considered cruel and unusual.

Under current Utah law, death by firing squad is only an option for criminals sentenced to death before 2004.

Ray's bill, which was endorsed by a panel of lawmakers in the fall, would call for a firing squad if Utah cannot obtain lethal injection drugs 30 days before the scheduled execution.

DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME

Residents exasperated with daylight saving time complained to lawmakers that the annual spring forward and fall back of clocks leads to groggy students and less sunlight for early morning workouts in summer. Two Utah lawmakers have bills this year that would keep the state on one time year-round.

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, is drafting a proposal that would make Utah the third state to opt-out of Daylight Saving Time, along with Arizona and Hawaii.

State Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, has proposed Utah remain permanently "sprung forward," on central standard time. Effectively, Utah would be an hour ahead of its eastern neighbor Colorado for more than half the year.

They'll face pushback from outdoor recreationists and tourism officials, who contend changing clocks provides extra sunlight to enjoy the outdoors and tourist attractions.

DISCRIMINATION AND GAY MARRIAGE

With the effective legalization of same-sex marriage in Utah last fall, legislators are wrestling with the legal implications.

Rep. Jacob Anderegg, a Lehi Republican, has two religious-rights proposals this year. One would stipulate that judges, clerks, religious officials and others allowed to perform marriages don't have to solemnize same-sex marriages if it violates their beliefs. His other proposal would amend the state constitution to protect the right of religious organizations and groups from being required to recognize any ceremonies against its beliefs.

On the other side of the issue, one lawmaker plans to revive a proposed statewide discrimination ban. The bill, from St. George Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart, would ban discrimination based on sexual or gender orientation when it comes to housing or employment. Despite Urquhart's protests that the measure has nothing to do with gay marriage, legislative leaders shelved the idea while Utah's legal battle overs its same-sex marriage ban was pending.

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