Utah Legislature calls historic special session to address coronavirus impacts

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) People walk the path around the Utah Capitol and recreate on the grounds, April 4, 2020. The Utah Legislature has called itself into a historic special session starting Thursday.

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State lawmakers announced Monday evening that they would convene in their first-ever all-virtual special session this week to address the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The session will kick off Thursday and could last up to 10 days as lawmakers confront a range of budgetary, election and economic challenges created by COVID-19. It could be the first in a series of special sessions in coming months to manage the state’s public health emergency and its aftermath.

“As we navigate these unprecedented times, we are committed to finding innovative solutions to do what is in the best interest of all Utahns,” Senate President Stuart Adams said in a news release announcing the session. “Together, we will get through this.”

This was also the first time lawmakers have exercised their new authority to call themselves into session during a time of emergency. While the governor typically announces a special session, Utah voters in 2018 granted the Legislature the ability to do it themselves.

House Speaker Brad Wilson said the lawmakers will be blazing a trail for other state legislatures to follow, explaining that Utah is among the first to convene entirely remotely. During the upcoming session, Wilson said he will be the lone representative standing on the House floor, facing an array of flat screen televisions as he leads the video conference with his colleagues.

“I think that’s remarkable, that 74 members of the Legislature will be working for their constituents, passing budget changes and policies, but doing it from their home districts,” the Kaysville Republican said in an interview last week.

In the final days of this year’s legislative session, as the COVID-19 outbreak spread to Utah, state leaders approved legislation allowing them to meet digitally in times of emergency — though they will still be required to comply with open meeting laws by making meetings available to the public.

After lawmakers came under fire for an apparent violation of the state’s open meetings law during a March conference call intended to update members of the House chamber on Utah’s unfolding coronavirus emergency, several organizations are calling for transparency in the upcoming special session.

The League of Women Voters of Utah encouraged its members in an email on Monday to call legislative leadership and ask them to ensure residents have adequate notice of any proposed actions and access to all meetings related to the passage of legislation.

Sen. Ann Millner, the assistant majority whip, said Monday that legislative staff have been “working very hard to put together a process that will actually be very transparent.”

“Everyone who wants to view it or see it or view the proceedings will be able to do that. I think this will work and work very well to help us meet these needs in a time of emergency,” said Millner, R-Ogden.

In a departure from the standard legislative process, there will be no committee hearings during the upcoming special session, Wilson said. Instead, lawmakers are aiming to post their bills online at least 48 hours before the session begins and will provide a place for the public to give feedback on each proposal, he said.

Senate spokeswoman Aundrea Peterson said the webpage for each bill will have a comment option, so people can provide their input to lawmakers and staff. These comments will not be visible to the general public, she said.

People will be able to watch a livestream of floor proceedings on the Legislature’s website or on KUEN channel 9.2 through a partnership with the Utah Education Network, Peterson said.

Lauren Simpson, policy director for the progressive-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, said in a statement on Tuesday that the “historic nature of the special session is not lost on us” but expressed concern that the public comment on bills “will not actually be public.”

“This is a violation of the spirit of transparency in government, and possibly a violation of Utah’s Open Meetings Act,” she said in a news release. “Utahns deserve full insight on how these bills are being shaped and influenced — especially in the absence of committee hearings. We hope legislative leadership will consider remedying this transparency issue by making all submitted comments visible to the public.”

Legislatures across the nation are grappling with the challenge of meeting remotely during the pandemic, according to a spokesperson for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Even before the public health crisis, Oregon and Wisconsin had constitutional provisions to allow for virtual meetings in times of emergency. But many other states — including Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Utah — have had to make changes to enable remote participation, said Mick Bullock, NCSL spokesman.

As they’ve adjusted to this new world of remote legislating, elected leaders have had to take into account everything from server bandwidth and security issues to potential statutory and constitutional hurdles, he wrote in an email.

“Some legislatures have determined that remote participation isn’t possible,” Bullock wrote.

Adams, R-Layton, said last month that the economy and state budget would be a primary focus of the special session as businesses have been forced to close, the stock market has plummeted and experts have warned nationally of an impending recession.

“This is probably the biggest economic challenge we’ve ever had in the history of the state and I’d even go into the ’40s, into the Depression,” Adams said of the coronavirus during a streamed conversation with Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts, who’s also a member of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board. “Our economy is really challenged right now.”

With tax revenues almost surely taking a hit, the Legislature will likely advise state agencies to brace for budget reductions in coming months, Wilson said. The exact size of these cuts has yet to be determined, but he estimated lawmakers will have a better sense of the revenue loss by mid-May.

Lawmakers are expected to consider a slate of bills that are unrelated to the economy, as well, including an effort to limit the power of local governments to issue stay-at-home orders. They will also take a look at any election-related changes required as a result of the coronavirus and right-to-try legislation that will give physicians greater protections when prescribing off-label or experimental medications during a public health emergency.

There will also be debate over how the state should transition out of crisis mode, Wilson said, adding that the Legislature will try to chart a course for businesses and residents as the pandemic subsides in Utah.

“People want to know how they’re going to get back to normal life,” Wilson said. “So we’re working closely with the health care leaders at the state Department of Health, the Governor’s Office [and] the business community to try to figure out this next phase.”