Legislature takes up topics critical to
Sanpete such as water, land and jobs
By Robert Green
Sanpete County legislators are focusing on good old-fashioned rural initiatives on water, land, mining, hunting and jobs, to name a few, while mostly avoiding a lot of controversy during this legislative session.
The 2020 session is going to be Senator Ralph Okerlund’s last legislative foray as he has announced his retirement after serving 12 years in the senate. “It’s time for me to wind down and spend some time with my family,” he said. “My district is huge and requires a lot of traveling and meeting people from a lot of different counties. The work has become full-time and lasts all-year long.”
Vying for the vacant senate seat will be the familiar face of Derrin Owens, R- Fountain Green, District 58.
Add in Rep. Carl Abrecht, R-Richfield, District 70, to the mix and all three Sanpete County lawmakers are sticking to meat and potato issues. There is a consensus among the three Republicans that tax reform will be put on the back burner until a new governor is elected.
That does not mean, however, that some hot-button issues won’t ensue. There is already a proposed bill to ban elective abortions in Utah if the Supreme Court clears the way; this bill is being sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay of Riverton. And Rep. Carol Moss, a Democrat from Holladay, is proposing to ban cellphone use while driving in Utah, a measure that has failed after years of trying.
Oil, gas inspections
Okerlund is sponsoring a bill to allow the Utah State Division of Oil, Gas and Mining conduct more frequent inspections on “the bad actors among oil and gas producers.” This bill is the result of a disappointing audit that showed a lack of oversight concerning some drilling and mining operations on public lands.
“Although 95 percent of the operators do a good job, there are a few bad actors that aren’t doing proper reclamation,” Okerlund said. “By the time the inspection is done, they have pulled up stakes and left the state or gone bankrupt and we don’t have any recourse.”
As chairman of the natural resources, agriculture and environment committee, Okerlund will also be seeking additional funds for watershed restoration. He has been doing this for a number of years. The funds have helped with over 200 different watershed projects in the state. Some of them have enhanced grazing where there isn’t enough water and restored fire-devastated areas.
He is also co-sponsoring a water-banking initiative that simply creates a way for water owners to bank water they are not using and allow others to be able to go to the bank, lease water, and use it. The bill creates three trial areas in the state that have not been determined yet and will sunset in 10 years.
In addition, Okerland is proposing a regional indigent defense program designed to ease the financial burden on small counties of paying for public defenders for people charged with crimes. The bill would create regional offices housing public defenders who could do work for more than one county.
Rep. Albrecht is sponsoring a bill for the Division of Wildlife Resources that will allow the director to issue more predator tags for bears and mountain lions, when populations of deer and elk dip below the target size. This might raise an eyebrow among environmental groups along the Wasatch Front, but should receive local support among outdoor enthusiasts.
Albrect was quoted in a Park City newspaper that his constituents have told him they’d been out to their usual hunting spots, but the deer were nowhere to be found. “I got more calls than you can imagine that there are no deer,” Albrecht said. “Believe it or not, I got more calls on that than I did on the tax reform. It’s a big deal in rural Utah.”
Albrecht will also be trying to get additional funding for his rural jobs bill and encourage Rural Innovation Centers to help people work online from rural Utah. He would also like to revise the transient room tax so that rural areas can use more of these funds for infrastructure needs caused by tourism.
Albrecht was also confident there will not be any tax reform this session. “That will wait until next year, when the new governor can weigh in,” he said.
His colleague, Rep. Owens will be championing several laws to help rural Utahns, but he is also excited to announce that after five sessions serving in the House, he’ll be running for the Senate District 24 seat when Sen. Okerlund retires this year.
Owens said that Okerlund has been a steady voice and champion for rural Utah. “I honor this good man and his family for their tireless service and leadership,” Owens said. “I have had the privilege to sponsor a number of pieces of legislation with him and as a mentor he has done the same for me.”
Stop intergenerational poverty
This session, Owens is sponsoring a bill to stop intergeneration poverty and also fighting to help sustain smaller public schools in the state.
The bill “Intergenerational Poverty Program Extension” has passed the house floor and progressed to the senate consent calendar, Owens said.
Sanpete County Commissioners and the intergenerational poverty task force have been working to curb this challenging issue. The purpose of this bill is to extend the sunset date of the state’s intergenerational poverty grant program and to keep all resources available in the toolbox.
Small school funding
Owens is also drafting Small Schools Program Amendments for a committee hearing. This legislation continues the work of previous rural legislators who have championed the cause of Necessary Existence of Small Schools (NESS) with funding formulas that help sustain the isolated and smaller public schools in the state.
Owens said he will continue to work to earn the people’s support. “Thank you for the honor to serve Sanpete County,” he said.