Updates from the Utah Legislature’s final day: Lawmakers repeal straight-ticket voting

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Isla Siegel in the arms of her father Scott, as he votes at the University of Utah's Marriott Library in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

The Utah Legislature is charging through its final marathon day of the 2020 general session on Thursday and is expected to work until midnight, passing bills at a rapid pace. Here’s the latest:

12:10 a.m.: Legislature repeals straight-party voting

After several years of failed attempts, the Utah Legislature approved legislation repealing the option of straight-party voting on Utah ballots.

The passage of HB70 with just 8 minutes left in the 45-day session was a particular point of focus for Rep. Patrice Arent, who has repeatedly sponsored the legislation and who plans to retire at the end of her current term in office.

Arent and other lawmakers argue that straight-party voting leads to low engagement among voters, who are able to select a single partisan option rather than consider the candidates and offices on their ballots.

State election officials testified during committee hearings that the straight-party option is a regular source of complaints and confusion from voters.

Following the passage of the bill, some members of the House applauded Arent for her work on the issue.

— Benjamin Wood

12:00 a.m.: Proposal to create a homelessness ‘czar’ watered down, then rejected

A bill to create a homelessness ‘czar’ — also referred to as a “high priestess” — was watered down amid opposition from homeless services providers and, in the final minutes of the legislative session, went down to defeat in the state Senate on a vote of 16 against and 13 for.

— Benjamin Wood

11:35 p.m. Lawmakers extend sales tax break to refineries slow to produce cleaner-burning fuel

House lawmakers voted to leave in place a sales tax exemption a bit longer for refineries that have been slower to produce cleaner Tier 3 fuel.

But representatives cut in half the length of the proposed extension, leaving the tax benefits in place only through January 1, 2023, for refiners that haven’t converted to the less-polluting gasoline.

The tax perk, created in 2017 to incentivize production of Tier 3, was due to expire in July 2021 for companies that hadn’t yet made the switch. Three of the refineries that supply Utah’s gas stations have already converted to the cleaner fuel, and environmental groups worried that extending the exemption to the two slower-moving refiners would essentially reward inaction.

The bill as initially introduced would’ve extended the exemptions to refiners that aren’t yet making Tier 3 but could demonstrate “satisfactory progress” toward producing it by 2025.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson suggested only giving refiners 18 months to produce Tier 3 before they get cut off from the sales tax exemptions. “The overall goal is to get as much Tier 3 fuel as possible,” Gibson, R-Mapleton, said.

The revised legislation passed the House by a 50-18 vote and senators quickly followed suit.

— Bethany Rodgers

11:00 p.m.: Lawmakers approve final budget bill with $20M for coronavirus efforts

With unanimous votes in both the House and Senate, lawmakers on Thursday approved the final list of budget items in HB3 — colloquially known as the “bill of bills” — including more than $20 million in state and federal funding to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

The spread of COVID-19 disrupted the final days of the legislative session, leading the House speaker to declare the Capitol grounds a “handshake-free zone” and with talks of a tax cut largely evaporating as state leaders worried about having enough resources to combat the virus and weather its effect on the economy.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that a special legislative session could be necessary to adjust the state’s budget as a result of the disease, but that the spending approved by lawmakers is intended to prepare in advance for emergency costs.

— Benjamin Wood

10:30 p.m.: Governor says the message of the Senate women walkout was loud and clear

Utah is overwhelmingly pro-life, Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday, but the state should heed the “loud message” sent by the women of the Senate when they walked out of the chamber in protest during a vote on a bill requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion.

“We should value their input,” Herbert said. “There’s nobody that understands birth more than a woman.”

Herbert’s comments came during a news conference in the waning hours of the 2020 legislative session.

He also praised lawmakers and educators for coming together on a compromise for education funding, and said the unified display of support would likely boost the deal in the eyes of voters, who will be asked to weigh in on the proposal in November.

“I think the public at large are going to say ‘Gee, this must be a great program’,” Herbert said.

In his recommended budget, Herbert called for $100 million to go toward transit and the build-out of an electric vehicle charging network. But those recommendations were based on a tax reform package that was repealed in January, leaving insufficient funds for Herbert’s priorities.

But he credited private organizations like Rocky Mountain Power for investing in electric vehicle charging, and said significant progress is still being made on transit and air quality improvements.

“It’s going to be a great step in the right direction,” he said.

— Benjamin Wood

8:55 p.m.: Legislature OKs sweeping abortion ban tied to Supreme Court action

Elective abortions would no longer be legal in the state of Utah, if Gov. Gary Herbert signs HB364 and if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

The Utah Senate gave final approval to the bill on Thursday, sending the most potentially restrictive of several pieces of abortion-related legislation to the governor’s desk.

It drew condemnation from Planned Parenthood of Utah and the Alliance for a Better Utah. Planned Parenthood CEO Karrie Galloway called it “an attack on the agency and well-being of Utahns.”

But one of the other bills, mandating that women undergo an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy, has so far failed to be considered in the House despite an earlier version of the legislation passing 47-20 in that chamber earlier this month.

The Senate approved the bill on Tuesday, despite a walkout protest during the vote by the female members of that chamber — both Republican and Democratic — but it has not yet been placed on the list of bills up for debate in the waning hours of the 2020 session.

— Benjamin Wood

8:00 p.m. Lawmakers OK school breakfast expansion

More students will have access to breakfast at school with the passage of HB222, a bill that uses federal dollars to expand student meals in the state.

The bill received final approval from lawmakers on Thursday after its earlier rejection by a Senate committee and subsequent resuscitation after public backlash.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, heads the committee that opposed and later approved the bill. He told his Senate colleagues on Thursday that sometimes lawmakers vote without fully understanding an issue, and he thanks State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson for helping him talk through the issue and prepare improvements to the legislation.

“It’s one of those I will look back on in the 2020 session and feel proud that our committee did a lot of work on,” McCay said.

In a prepared statement, the group Utahns Against Hunger thanked McCay and his committee, as well as the state school board and other lawmakers.

“This bill demonstrates the need for community involvement in the legislative process,” said the group’s Gina Cornia.

— Benjamin Wood

6:00 p.m.: House defeats substitute teacher training bill

A bill that would require substitute teachers to be trained on appropriate classroom behavior faltered Thursday in the Utah House.

The legislation came in response to an incident last year when a Utah substitute snapped at a fifth grade boy being adopted by two gay dads and told him that “homosexuality is a sin.”

However, several lawmakers objected that adding training requirements could create another barrier to becoming a substitute teacher.

“It’s a simple training, so it probably doesn’t have much to it,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo. “But yet it’s one more hurdle.”

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, argued the legislation would protect children and teachers alike — by telling substitutes what to expect in the classroom and what behavior will be expected of them.

“This is just saying we care about our kids and their safety,” Moss, a retired school teacher, said.

However, the measure, SB198, failed in a 21-49 vote.

— Bethany Rodgers

A yurt couldn’t hurt

A yurt isn’t just a yurt.

Under state law, a yurt is either a tent or a building. The distinction between those two categories would be changed by HB297, which defines when a yurt is to be considered a tent and excluded from building codes. The bill, in essence, puts yurts in the tent category if they lack electricity and plumbing, are not used for permanent residence and comply with other requirements.

The bill earned the unanimous approval of the Senate on Thursday, amid joke-filled debate on whether the bill discriminates against a Mongolian Ger — a yurt-like semipermanent structure — and a fictional limerick about a senator looking for somewhere to flirt where he wouldn’t get hurt.

“Off in the distance, there was a yurt,” said Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan.

Fillmore’s remarks prompted Spanish Fork Republican Sen. Deidre Henderson to congratulate her colleague on becoming an old man.

“He tells really terrible dad jokes,” she said.

— Benjamin Wood

5:00 p.m.: Utah House OKs ban on most abortions in Utah, if U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade

The Utah House has approved a proposal that would prohibit all elective abortions in Utah if the Supreme Court reverses its long-standing position on the procedure.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, an anesthesiologist, condemned the proposed ban and said it is at odds with the realities of the medical profession, which she said does not operate in a world of black-and-white.

“This extreme bill will hurt women,” the Draper Democrat said. “To be clear, women will die.”

SB174 provides a few limited exceptions that allow abortion in cases of rape or incest, if the life of a woman is at stake or if the fetus has a brain abnormality that would cause a “mentally vegetative state.” Harrison said those are not medical terms and called the language “political gobbledygook” that would be dangerous to include in state statue.

House Democrats made a final attempt to loosen the bill’s strict prohibitions — for instance, trying to ease the bill’s penalties for performing an illegal abortion from a second-degree felony to an infraction. But House sponsor, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, resisted this proposed change as undermining the idea that human life begins at the implantation of a fertilized egg.

“This bill is meant to discourage the taking of a human life,” Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, said. “Human life, according to the state of Utah, is important and should be protected.”

House lawmakers rejected the amendments proposed by Democrats and passed the bill by 51 to 21. Six Republicans broke with their party and joined Democrats in opposing the bill, which heads back to the Senate for a final procedural vote.

— Bethany Rodgers

3:35 p.m.: Two Democratic women announce retirements from House

Two Democratic members of the House announced their retirements from the Legislature on Thursday, with both declining to seek reelection to a seventh term.

Cottonwood Heights Rep. Marie Poulson and Magna Rep. Sue Duckworth were both elected in 2008, with Duckworth succeeding her husband Carl Duckworth, who had represented the Magna area since 1999.

Poulson, a former school teacher and fixture on the House Education Committee, was known for sponsoring school-related legislation and advocating for better teaching conditions. In recent years, she became a vocal critic of the state’s school grading program, sponsoring legislation to repeal the practice of issuing letter grades based on test scores.

In a prepared statement, Poulson said that serving as a lawmaker has been one of the great opportunities of her life. "I feel proud of my work to advance full Medicaid expansion, lower drug prices, clean air policies, environmental protections, sound fiscal decisions, and protections for women among other issues.”

Duckworth is known among House members for her bipartisanship, and was appointed vice-chairwoman of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, an atypical position of authority for members of the minority party. In recent years she has sponsored legislation and advocated for sales exemptions on hygiene products.

“I feel good about what we have been able to accomplish," she said in a statement, "and I am looking forward to spending more time with my family and my neighbors.”

— Benjamin Wood

3:15 p.m.: Lawmakers impose new penalties for protesters causing multiple disruptions of public meetings.

The fifth time was the charm for SB173, a bill changing the criminal penalties for disrupting public meetings.

With a unanimous vote on Thursday, the Senate gave the final stamp of approval to the fifth substitute of the bill, which originally would have made an infraction out of momentary outbursts, with escalating penalties for subsequent offenses.

While the bill does now raise the potential penalty of disrupting meetings multiple times to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by jail time, the definition of a “minor disruption” has been removed and the multiple offenses must occur within a 5-year period and after a person has been explicitly told to stop their disruptions.

“Like that one old boy said,” said bill sponsor Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, “by the time it gets to a fifth substitute, it must be a pretty good bill.”

SB173 will now move to the governor for his signature or veto.

— Benjamin Wood

2:45 p.m.: Rep. Tim Quinn will retire this year

Utah Rep. Tim Quinn says he will not be running for re-election this year.

Asked why he’d decided to leave at the end of his term, the Heber City Republican said “there’s a lot of reasons” he doesn’t want to return.

Quinn, who led last session’s controversial and unsuccessful tax overhaul effort to tax a broad range of service-based businesses, said he’d wearied of the policymaking process used by lawmakers on Capitol Hill but declined to give specifics.

“Let’s just leave it,” he said.

Quinn joined the Legislature in January 2017.

— Bethany Rodgers

1 p.m.: House Democrats say Republicans are blocking their top priorities from a final vote

House Democrats are frustrated that Republicans apparently won’t put their top two priority House-passed bills before senators.

One is HB101 by Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, to more strictly ban use of hand-held cellphones while driving — which passed the House on a 40-32 vote. It also passed a preliminary vote in the Senate 19-8, but has not received final consideration there.

The other bill is HB70 by Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, to stop single-mark straight ticket voting, which passed the House 46-26.

“We have done everything we could to get them through,” House Democratic leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, told his caucus.

He said he told House Majority Whip Mike Schultz that the two bills are House Democrats’ top priority, but Schultz continues to forward other bills instead as the House controls the Senate calendar on the final day.

King noted that everyone in House GOP leadership voted against both bills, which may be why they are languishing.

King noted that a majority of Republicans — and nearly all Democrats — voted for Arent’s bill to ban single-mark straight ticket voting, encouraging people to look at more than a party affiliation as they look at candidates.

A minority of all House Republicans voted for the cellphone ban, but a majority of Senate Republicans did in a preliminary vote.

— Lee Davidson

11 a.m.: Senate urges national focus on federalism

Senators voted 21-4 Thursday in favor of a resolution calling for a national task force on federalism to help shift power from Washington, D.C., to state capitols.

HCR16 appeals to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to establish a federalism task force that would convene a series of summits and develop plans “for restoring and maintaining clearly discernible divisions in the roles and responsibilities of the national government and the states.”

The bill ran into some trouble in the House — where Democrats expressed general support for the bill’s premise but asked for removal of the inclusion of ALEC, one of the nation’s best-known factories for model legislation — but ultimately passed with a 59-8 vote.

All four of the dissenting votes in the Senate came from Democrats.

— Taylor Stevens

11 a.m.: The governor takes time to urge Utahns to be counted in census

Sure, it’s the last day of the Legislature. But it’s also the day that Utahns will start receiving letters inviting them to participate in the 2020 census online. So Gov. Gary Herbert took time to issue a proclamation.

He declared April as Census Awareness Month in Utah.

“The census is a crucial element in helping determine how federal dollars will be allocated in the state of Utah in order to help fund roads, schools and services,” it said. “The 2020 census is easier to participate in than ever before as for the first time, it can be done in minutes online, by phone or via mail.”

— Lee Davidson

10:45 a.m.: New restrictions limit criminal cases against young kids

The Senate voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would keep most young children out of the courtroom and instead connect them with counseling and mental health help.

In Utah, there’s no minimum age for sending children to juvenile court — meaning kids as young as 5 have gone through the system. Last year, prosecutors filed cases against nearly 100 elementary school-aged kids.

HB262, which received final passage Thursday, would change that, prohibiting the prosecution for offenses that occurred before the individual was 12 years old, with some exceptions.

Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City and the bill’s sponsor, said in a previous interview that the legislation will greatly reduce the number of young children going through the court system.

“These 9-year-olds and 8-year-olds, they are simply too young to understand what is going on,” he said. “Low-risk youth being introduced to detention can cause long-term problems.”

The bill, which passed in the House last month over some criticisms that the bill would potentially compromising public safety, now goes to the governor.

— Taylor Stevens

10:15 a.m. Leaders announce $24 million package to fight the coronavirus among the elderly, low income

Legislative leaders announced a plan to allocate more than $24 million to bolster efforts by health departments and other organizations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among a group particularly susceptible to the virus.

“Utah has a rainy-day fund, a culture of preparedness and the best health care personnel in the country who specializes in infectious diseases,” said Senate President Stuart Adams in a news release.

“Elderly are at a higher risk and why we are funding programs to protect those most vulnerable. We have conquered similar challenges in the past and will continue to work together to overcome this while minimizing the burden to Utahns and our businesses. Our strong economy gives us the flexibility to handle this situation,” he said.

Legislators will vote to include additional funding for:

• $250,000 to Meals on Wheels, a program targeted to assist senior citizens.

• $250,000 to the Food Box Program that provides 10 days worth of boxed meals to seniors.

• $250,000 in new home medical testing services to help minimize the spread of the illness.

• $250,000 in home supportive services program for vulnerable populations

• $2 million for local health departments to create intensive response programs for seniors.

These funds are in addition to the $16 million given to the Division of Finance and the $4 million taken from the Disaster Recovery Restriction Account.

“All Utahns should take reasonable precautions to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson.

“Health experts have warned that people of advanced age are at a higher risk of developing significant health issues as a result of contracting the virus,” he said. “As county health workers and other organizations that care for the elderly are already doing great work, we want to ensure they have the funds they need to help seniors and others affected by the virus.”

— Lee Davidson

10:15 a.m.: Cities thanked for ranked-choice voting

The Senate voted unanimously in favor of a joint resolution commending the towns of Payson and Vineyard and Utah County election officials for successfully conducting ranked-choice voting last year — and encouraging other municipalities to give the new voting method a try, as well.

Post-polling of residents in those Utah County cities found that 86% of respondents found ranked-choice voting easy to use and 82.5% said it should be used in future elections, the resolution notes. Candidates also said they liked the method.

“It was successful and people enjoyed it so we want to say thank you for trying it out,” said Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who carried HCR8 in the Senate.

— Taylor Stevens

10:05 a.m.: Letter grades would be paused under bill

The House advanced a bill Thursday to stop issuing letter grades to public schools both this year and next — this is part of a fight about whether to get rid of those grades permanently.

It passed SB119 on a 69-0 vote, and returned it to the Senate to consider amendments.

The House previously passed another bill by Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, to get rid of the letter grades permanently, but her bill stalled in the Senate. Senators favor SB119 to simply pause the letter grade program to possibly fix it in the future.

Poulson attempted to amend the bill to permanently end those letter grades, but it failed 29-41.

She said merely pausing the program is like treating the symptoms of “infection but it doesn’t address the virus going on.”

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, the House sponsor of the bill said, “We want to grade our kids, but we don’t want to grade our schools?” He urged trying to fix the program instead of dumping it, and said the Senate would agree only to that approach.

Utah’s school grading law was enacted in 2011 and has been a point of contention in education circles with teachers and parents groups arguing that it unfairly characterizes diverse and low-income communities.

The law sees school performance reduced to a single letter grade of A, B, C, D or F and has been subject to near-constant amendment in state code to fix design flaws and respond to criticism.

— Lee Davidson

9:25 a.m.: Bill approved to help patients get medical marijuana

With a final House vote, the Legislature has passed HB425 that includes a provision to enable Utah patients to use cannabis recommendation letters from doctors to buy from marijuana pharmacies through the year’s end.

It now goes to Gov. Gary Herbert for his consideration.

While the state celebrated the grand opening of its first cannabis pharmacy in Salt Lake City earlier this month, the new business has had one major challenge — a dearth of customers. Connor Boyack, a cannabis advocate, said that’s due in part to glitches with the online portal that’s supposed to help patients sign up for medical marijuana cards.

HB425 solves that by allowing physician recommendation letters — which have granted temporary legal protection to cannabis patients while the state has been building its full program — to work at marijuana pharmacies for the rest of 2020.

That way, patients have months to apply for their more permanent cannabis cards, and the state has time to work out the bugs in its system, he says.

— Lee Davidson

9:12 a.m.: House begins with thoughts and prayer about COVID-19

The House gaveled in with a word about the coronavirus.

House members (and senators, too) wore white ribbons.

“It’s in honor of health care workers,” in a time they face extra threats because of the new coronavirus, said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem.

The opening prayer — by Craig Ballard, husband of Rep. Melissa Ballard — also focused on COVID-19, praying that workers will be able to handle the spread and asked for blessings to halt it.

After that, House Speaker Brad Wilson urged members to kick efforts into high gear, drawing a comparison to the movie “Ford vs. Ferrari.”

“Yesterday was a Ford Fiesta day,” he said, urging that the last day of the Legislature needs to be a Ferrari day. “Let’s get going.”

— Lee Davidson

9:10 a.m.: Gas station slot machines will be outlawed

In a final vote, the Senate approved a bill to crack down on the “fringe gambling” that has allowed slot machine-like devices to crop up at convenience stores around the state.

The proposal, which passed resoundingly through the House on Wednesday, will clarify which type of machines are legal, define what is considered a fringe gambling machine, increase criminal penalties for owners of gambling machines and allow people to request double damages for money lost to the owner of the machine.

SB214, sponsored by Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, now goes to the governor for his signature or veto.

— Taylor Stevens

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