Gov. Gary Herbert signed a major transportation bill Friday that he has praised as bringing more accountability and efficiency to the revamped Utah Transit Authority.
Herbert put the final touches on the Beehive State’s newly constructed policy on medical marijuana — a limited program designed to allow production and distribution to a relatively small group of terminally ill patients.
He also signed legislation clearing the way for the natural-gas monopoly to extend its service in rural areas of the state, while spreading the associated high capital costs to all utility customers.
And the governor also gave the final OK to expanding the state’s crisis hotline network to assure that when residents in crisis reach out for help, there is a live person on the other end of the line.
SB136 is a UTA overhaul measure that has been in the works for months as lawmakers studied the issues and controversies that have hampered the agency in the past.
The bill will mean the end of the 16-member board appointed by various local and state governments, leading to criticism that instead of acting as a watchdog, it is unaccountable to the public and rubber stamps whatever UTA executives want. Under SB136, a three-member, governor-appointed commission will oversee the transit authority instead.
“We’re going to make sure that [UTA] functions better, [is] more transparent, more open. That’s going to be a major upgrade with a new governance system,” the governor said in the waning hours of the legislative session that ended March 8.
Herbert did have one misgiving about SB136, however — a provision changing the agency’s name to Transit District of Utah (TDU), in a rebranding move. Some have estimated that such a name change would cost as much as $50 million.
Herbert earlier told reporters it would be foolish to spend that much in public money on such a switch. And the bill may provide leeway to delay or sidetrack the name change.
The governor said the measure’s substantive improvements in agency governance, transparency and accountability are “what’s going to bring back the trust, not by calling it some different name,” he said.
One of the bill’s more controversial aspects is hiking registration fees of electric vehicles by $120 annually when fully implemented.
Together, the bills represent Utah’s first foray into the realm of legalized medical marijuana, but it’s a relatively cautious step, one that backers of a much more robust ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana have decried as too little too late.
The only patients eligible under the new state program are those with a terminal prognosis and less than six months to live.
“The legislation that was passed can barely be described as medical marijuana,” Connor Boyack, an initiative backer, said.
Herbert on Friday also signed SB130 making it legal for businesses to sell cannabidiol, a substance derived from cannabis without the psychoactive ingredients. Many companies have been selling the product.
Hit the gas
The governor signed HB422 to allow the state Public Service Commission to pass on the costs of extending natural gas service to rural customers.
The bill caps the amount of money that can be raised through the program at 5 percent of company revenues, which currently translates to a maximum $170 million. That, in turn, could mean a $3-$7 annual increase in the average residential customer’s bill.
Dominion Energy, the regulated natural gas utility, told lawmakers how currently it is an economic nonstarter to extend service to areas with sparse population — places such as Kanab, Garden City and Green River.
“To run a $30 million line to Green River with 300 customers, economically they would never be able to pay for it,” Kelly Mendenhall, Dominion’s director of regulatory affairs, has said.
Herbert also signed HB41 requiring that crisis lines operate around the clock 365 days a year or that calls to them be transferred to a statewide line that does.
The legislation was dubbed “Hannah’s bill” after Hannah Warburton, a Huntsville teenager who in 2015 called a suicide prevention line and, after no one answered, took her own life.
“This bill is designed to ensure that never happens again in the state of Utah,” said sponsoring Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.
Hannah’s mother, Laura Warburton, watched emotionally on the House floor as the bill passed that chamber and representatives took turns recounting the experiences of friends’ and families’ struggles with suicidal thoughts.