Robert Gehrke: Utah’s emergency legislative session is shaping up to be a pandemic power grab

Robert Gehrke

The emergency legislative session will be unlike any we’ve ever seen before — and I’m not just talking about House Speaker Brad Wilson’s first-in-modern-memory beard.

An institution replete with back-slapping and handshakes will convene remotely for the first time starting Thursday to address pressing — and not-so-pressing — issues.

When the regular session ended barely a month ago, plenty of lawmakers were still remarkably cavalier about the threat of the coronavirus. That seemed to change when one of their own, Sen. Luz Escamilla, was struck by the illness which she probably contracted during the session. She got a bunch of calls and texts, some from well-wishers and some from legislators worried they’d been exposed, too.

Nothing brings the threat home like the threat of bringing it home.

Given the fiscal and physical crisis the state is facing, the virtual session makes perfect sense. And if everything was fine, this would be my shortest column ever. But of course it isn’t.

In the name of urgency and efficiency, gone are the committee hearings and public comment. Instead, concerned residents can submit comments on the legislation — some of which hadn’t even been made public Wednesday evening — online or through email.

So while the “Vox Populi” sign — voice of the people — will be above the speaker’s head like always in the House chamber (he’ll be the only lawmaker there), real public input will be as distant as the representatives who make up the body.

Beyond that, though, the session has morphed from only tackling critical, time-sensitive needs — like changes to the tax deadline, urgent budget authority and filling unemployment gaps — into a legislative power grab and even includes bills the governor vetoed this month.

One of the more frustrating inclusions is yet another effort to make it easier to dispense hydoxychloroquine — a malaria drug that got a lot of attention on Fox News and, therefore, from the president.

At this point, it’s snake oil.

Leading medical minds agree, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the American Medical Association and local infectious disease experts. They have all said over and over that there is no evidence it is effective in treating COVID-19. The primary study that has been cited over and over by supporters has been shot full of holes, to the point that the publisher noted recently that it did not meet its criteria.

Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah recently launched a clinical trial on the drug, but Samuel Brown, principal investigator of one of the studies, said, “The likelihood is that hydroxychloroquine does not have an effect.”

Last month, the state’s pharmacy board expressed concerns about the use of an unproven medication, doctors stockpiling it, and the potential it could cause shortages for patients who really need it to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

While there is no evidence it helps coronavirus patients, there are well-known side effects. But legislation sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers would give civil and criminal immunity to doctors who prescribe it and other experimental medications.

The problem is that, beyond Donald Trump, hydroxychloroquine has powerful believers, chief among them in Utah are Senate President Stuart Adams and Sen. Kirk Cullimore. Neither is a doctor, but they have teamed up with Dan Richards, owner of Meds In Motion, a Utah compounding pharmacy, who bought a mountain of the drug and wants to make it available to patients.

The hydroxychloroquine push had so much muscle behind it that there was a plan — eventually blocked by the governor — that would have reportedly allowed pharmacists to dispense it if patients simply filled out an online questionnaire.

Science is out the window here, and someone stands to make a lot of money selling useless pills to scared and gullible Utahns, not with the state’s blessing but with — unless they are “grossly negligent” or “malicious” — complete civil and criminal immunity.

Legislators are also looking to rein in Gov. Gary Herbert, or at least insert themselves into the process of issuing emergency orders and closures. Under HB3005, the Pandemic Response and Consultation Act, the governor would have to submit all proposed emergency orders to legislative leaders at least 48 hours before they are issued.

There is a feeling among some lawmakers that the governor is a “lone wolf” and they want legislators to be consulted. And consultation is good, but emergencies are also emergencies — and 48 hours is a long time.

There is an exception if there is a risk of “imminent threat of loss of life,” but with a 12- to 14-day incubation period, the threat of a virus may not be imminent, but the consequences of inaction are severe.

“Sometimes issues come up fast and furious that we don’t have a chance to gather the Legislature together and say, ‘Let’s talk about this and come up with a solution.' That’s why there’s emergency powers and executive orders that come from the governor’s office,” Herbert said.

The special session also has been loaded up with second attempts to pass a railway sales tax bill and a special needs scholarship proposal, both of which were vetoed by Herbert. Lawmakers also will debate a local annexation bill and a resolution supporting the people of China in their COVID response (an oddly specific piece given the global nature of the pandemic).

This is sure to be the first of several special sessions this year as lawmakers try to deal with the fallout of this crisis. Recovery from this pandemic will be a team effort, to be sure, and legislators should be involved.

But like those medical professionals on the front lines, their first mission should be to “do no harm.” It would be a mistake for legislators to insert themselves in the process to advance narrow policy objectives or tie the governor’s hands or, worst of all, attempt to prematurely roll back the measures that have kept Utahns safe.

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