By Aaron Hastings
Capital West News
SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah Legislature kicked off its 45-day 2015 general session Jan. 26, introducing and reviewing hundreds of bills which will either die in the legislative process or survive to become state law.
Among issues on the minds of rural lawmakers are water rights, renewable energy, education, feral swine, agricultural tourism, the future of the State Fair, and states’ rights.
With some extra money in state coffers, the 2015 session will be dealing with education issues. Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, focused on education as one of his main platforms during his campaign.
“There is no greater investment the state can make than in the preparation of those kids who will be our future workforce and our future leaders,” said Van Tassell.
During past legislative sessions, Van Tassell has voted in support of bills that reduced the size of primary education classrooms in order to give children more opportunities to get help from and interact with teachers.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, member of the House Education Committee, has seven bills on the docket for the 2015 general session, including an education bill that “modifies provisions related to American Indian-Alaskan Native education.”
Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, is also in support of public education funding. “I think the state is at a crossroads. The economy in Utah is recovering well,” said Brown. “We’re starting to grow the budget, and what that does is create a lot of interest in money.”
Agriculture is also a topic of discussion on Capitol Hill this year. Some of the agricultural bills currently on the docket for the Legislature address the issues of feral swine hunting in Utah, and concerns with agricultural tourism. Rural lawmakers are also trying to boost funding for the beleaguered State Fair. One plan calls for Real Salt Lake to build a stadium at the State Fairpark in West Salt Lake City.
There’s also bills dealing with livestock and agricultural tourism. HB59, sponsored by Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, “prohibits an individual from releasing a feral swine for any purpose,” and “receiving, or seeking to receive, compensation for killing a feral swine.” Additionally, the bill “states that an individual who kills a swine is not liable to the owner of the swine unless the swine was conspicuously identified by an ear tag or other form of visual identification.”
HB102, from Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, states that “participant in an agricultural tourism activity may not make a claim against, or recover damages from, an operator for injury.”
The bill includes language that says the operator of the agricultural area is not liable when the participant fails “to follow instructions or exercise reasonable care.” However, the bill does require the operator to “post signs describing the inherent risks of an activity.”
Among these bills are at least seven that deal in water access, two that amend agricultural regulations, and one that deals in renewable energy. Many of the bills dealing with water amend the process for water rights change applications.
SB15, SB35 and SB40 for water regulation come from Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, who is the chair of the State Water Development Commission.
“Seven states rely on the Colorado River for water,” said Dayton. “We need very clear and understandable explanations as to how we can use water. We’re growing so much; we need to have very careful delineation of every bit of water.”
SB15 “clarifies that abandonment and forfeiture of water provisions do not apply to a water right for nonuse.” In other words, the application process does not interfere with a water right for nonuse.
“Basically, this bill states that if you are in the process of pursuing a water right, even if it is water you haven’t used in a while, your water cannot be forfeited until after the process,” said Dayton. “You don’t lose your water rights while you are in the process of application.”
Dayton also says that while time limits can factor into the application for water, anyone trying to “diligently pursue” water rights will be immune.
“Your water is not going to be taken from you because it could be resolved in your favor,” said Dayton.
SB35 and SB40 amend the application process for water change, requiring that applicants meet certain qualifications and ensuring their right to withdraw an application from the State Engineer with a written notice.
SB35 specifically protects the rights of a water owner leasing the water source to someone else. This bill comes as a response to questions over the rights of a water owner leasing the source. This issue partially stems from a Utah Supreme Court case in 2011, Salt Lake City Corp. v. Big Ditch Irrigation Co.
“Imagine yourself as a water rights owner. If you have water that you are not using right now, you can agree to lease the water,” said Dayton. “This bill clarifies that the owner of the water, or someone that they designate, are the only ones that can sell the water.”
Under SB40, applicants must be “the record owner of a perfected water right,” or someone with approval from such an individual, the holder of an approved but unperfected application to appropriate water, or a shareholder in a water company. The bill also offers additional changes to law, including the ability to withdraw an application for water rights.
Also addressing water applications in Utah, HB25 from Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, gives the applicant authority to request a meeting with the State Engineer, or a designee, to discuss the application. The bill also authorizes the State Engineer to “determine whether a proposed change would result in quantity impairment of another water right.”
Also on the schedule for this session is a resolution, HJR3. Sponsored by Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, the resolution “urges the states to request that [the United States] Congress call a convention of the states for the purpose of proposing and voting on a constitutional amendment allowing states to countermand federal law in certain circumstances.”
The resolution urges other state legislatures to pass similar resolves, in the hopes that Congress will call a convention of the states to adopt a “countermand amendment” capable of changing the United States Constitution and federal law.
Contributors: Maren McInnes, Emily Larson