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Hinckley panelists predict reform and gay rights to take backseat

By Alex Cragun, Staff Writer

In a special forum Thursday at the Hinckley Institute of Politics, local newspaper reporters said Utah can expect more budget cuts to go through the Utah Legislature this session, while ethics, health care reform, liquor laws and gay rights take the backseat.

The Hinckley Institute hosted the forum with Doug Fabrizio’s political-broadcasting “RadioWest” show on KUER and invited two reporters from The Salt Lake Tribune and one reporter from the Deseret News to discuss what people could expect from the 2009 Utah legislative session.

“Budget cuts this state is facing are going to be the number one (issue) and will overshadow pretty much every decision lawmakers have to make,” said Lisa Roche, a government reporter for the Deseret News. Roche believes the Legislature will focus on how much money and how many jobs will be cut.

Republicans in the Legislature are considering a 15 percent cut in the budget, whereas Democrats and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. are hoping to tap into the Rainy Day Fund and put a $2 to $3 tax on cigarettes.

Besides imminent budget cuts, the panel also discussed the possibility of ethics reform, including campaign finance reform and banning gifts, but panelists were pessimistic about the future.

“I don’t expect much to change,” said Rebecca Walsh, a columnist for The Tribune. “You’ve already seen Senator (Michael) Waddoups push back (and say) “we don’t want to criminalize well-meaning acts.'” Sen. Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, is the president of the Utah Senate.

Robert Gehrke, a Tribune government reporter, said he believes the proposed ethics reforms will not pass because the Legislature is very territorial about its own self-policing powers.

The panel talked about the possible passage of the Common Ground Initiative, a series of gay rights legislation for 2009. The topic is higher priority because gay rights activism in Utah surged when the California’s Proposition 8 passed and incited the anger of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community. Salt Lake City residents were upset because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated funds in support of the initiative.

Will Carlson, Equality Utah’s manager of public policy, said he is hopeful that gay rights legislation will pass.

“It’s an interesting conversation to talk about these bills because every conversation starts with “now, I’m negotiating on marriage’ but the whole point about the Common Ground Initiative is to say “alright, well, some of us are comfortable with marriage and some of us (aren’t),'” Carlson said.

He said the silver lining for Proposition 8 was the idea to pursue other options, such as civil union and domestic partnerships.

The panel also predicted health care reform would not make the cut during the session.

“The talk on the hill is that we cannot afford health care reform, but what I think the governor and certainly the new (presidential) administration and Congress understand this recession is to the level that you do want to tackle health system reform, as painful and complicated as that is going to be without money,” said Judi Hillman, director of the Utah Health Policy Project.

Hillman said she believes programs such as Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program should be strengthened to form a safety net for citizens, but said she is concerned conservative Republicans aren’t taking enough action and downsizing government.

Walsh said she believes there is a lot of “alarm language” about the cuts, giving lawmakers room with the reductions.

“Every year, where there are shortfalls, the first thing lawmakers look at cutting is social services and education,” Walsh said. “That’s just the easiest place to cut.”

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