Amid coronavirus threat, Utah Legislature moves to allow remote meetings

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The House Chamber in Salt Lake City on Thursday Dec. 12, 2019, as lawmakers hold a special session.

Because of the new coronavirus threat, Utah lawmakers were rushing through legislation on Wednesday that will allow them to avoid meeting in person — and meet remotely by digital means instead in times of emergency.

“It is unusual, but not unprecedented. Other organizations are doing the same,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

The Senate voted 28-0 to pass SJR16 and sent it to the House for consideration.

The bill was written only a day earlier and did not have the usually required committee hearing. Lawmakers rushed it forward by suspending normal rules. The Legislature’s annual general session ends on Thursday, but the bill would allow meeting electronically in later special sessions or interim meetings.

“I don’t know why we didn’t think of it years ago,” said Senate Democratic leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City. She said it makes sense not only because of the coronavirus, but the possibility of other natural disasters such as earthquakes.

“We don’t know what the future brings,” she said. “We have to have these things in place, or we can’t function.”

Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, sponsor of the bill, said meeting digitally will be allowed only when a governor declares an emergency; if the Senate president and House speaker determine it is “dangerous, unwise or impractical” to meet in person; and if at least 25% of lawmakers are unable to travel to the meeting place.

Only those lawmakers who are unable to travel to the meeting place will be allowed to participate electronically.

Also, legislators will still be required to comply with open meeting laws by making the meeting available to the public and news media.

“This technology exists,” Hemmert said. “Nothing needs to be built. Companies right now are holding very large mass meetings over the internet…. It’s not super expensive.”

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, noted that many boards and commissions in the state already allow some members to participate electronically. “It is a lot more convenient for everyone, including the public,” he said.