Here’s what you need to know about the Legislature’s upcoming digital special session

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Utah Capitol at dusk on Feb. 5, 2020, during the legislative session.

The Utah Legislature will meet beginning Thursday in its first-ever digital special session as lawmakers confront a range of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the core functions of this special session will remain the same as ever — lawmakers will still debate and vote on bills — there are some key differences. Public comment will be handled differently, for example. And unlike in most sessions, there will be no committee hearings, and the House and Senate will not meet simultaneously.

Here’s a list of all the things you need to know about the upcoming special session, from how to tune in to what bills to watch:

When will the Legislature meet and for how long?

The House will gavel in the first day of the special session Thursday at 9 a.m. and work through the afternoon. Senate proceedings are expected to begin afterward.

Aundrea Peterson, a spokeswoman with the Senate, said lawmakers plan to get as much accomplished as they can Thursday.

“If we get it all done in one day, great," she said. “If not, we’ll likely come back Friday to wrap it up.”

The Legislature has the authority to keep the special session going for up to 10 days, so if there are technical glitches or lawmakers don’t get through all the proposed legislation this week, they could continue their work into next week.

If that’s necessary, Peterson said, she doesn’t anticipate there will be conference committees or any meetings held over the weekend.

How can I watch?

Though state leaders recently approved legislation allowing them to meet digitally in times of emergency, they’re still required to comply with open meetings laws, which means proceedings have to be public.

There are three ways to tune in: Through a livestream of floor proceedings on the Legislature’s website at le.utah.gov/FloorCalendars; on KUEN Channel 9.2, which will be broadcast through a partnership with the Utah Education Network; and on Comcast Channel 388.

How can I provide public comment?

A new feature on the Legislature’s website allows Utahns to provide public input online on any bill that has been made publicly available. Commenters are asked to include their name and address, select their representatives and indicate whether they are for or against the bill or are neutral.

These comments will not be visible to the general public — a reality the progressive-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah has argued “is a violation of the spirit of transparency in government and possibly a violation of Utah’s Open Meetings Act” — but Peterson said they will be subject to open records requests. The Utah Media Coalition, representing multiple news organizations, has also raised concerns about legislative compliance with the open meetings and open records laws.

While the comment option on individual bills was put in place “to make it easy for people to get to the Legislature the feedback they need,” Peterson encouraged Utahns to reach out directly to their representatives through email or phone. Lawmakers and their staff are also monitoring social media, she said.

Why is a special session needed?

In response to the coronavirus, businesses have been forced to close, the stock market has plummeted, and experts have warned nationally of an impending recession — all throwing the budget the state put together in its spring session out of whack. The special session will offer lawmakers the opportunity to rework that budget based on new economic projections, as well as to tackle other health and economic questions related to COVID-19.

What bills will lawmakers consider?

Right to try: Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers is sponsoring a bill establishing protections for doctors who want to prescribe off-label or experimental medications to treat the coronavirus.

These provisions would extend legal immunity to these physicians during a public health crisis — meaning a patient wouldn’t have grounds to sue over the prescription of off-label drugs unless the health care provider had exhibited gross negligence or malice. SB3002 would also give health workers more flexibility to provide care outside their “education, training, or experience,” recognizing the potential for staffing shortages during the pandemic.

The measure could help physicians feel more at ease using an anti-malaria drug called hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients, said Vickers, who is a pharmacist. The medicine has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but not for coronavirus, making it an off-label use. While President Donald Trump has promoted the drug as a possible COVID-19 remedy, health experts advise caution and say there is a lack of evidence that it’s beneficial.

Vickers, R-Cedar City, stressed that the bill’s provisions would apply only during public health emergencies and would not offer the broad protections to physicians in other circumstances.

Pandemic consultation: HB3005 would require the governor to provide notice and consult with the legislative branch before issuing a declaration of a state of emergency or other executive orders involving an epidemic or pandemic disease. The bill, sponsored by House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, would also allow the Legislature to terminate certain executive actions made by the governor through a joint resolution, including any directive encouraging statewide compliance.

The notice and consultation requirements would not be necessary if there is an “imminent threat of loss of life” and when complying with those notification and collaboration requirements would increase the threat of loss of life.

The Alliance for a Better Utah called the bill a “blatant power grab” that could have “devastating consequences for future emergencies.”

“Having a single person in charge during times of crisis is one of the reasons we have executive officials in the first place,” Lauren Simpson, the group’s policy director, said in a news release. “When time is of the essence, you want a leader who can respond nimbly to changing circumstances, without having to go through our traditional legislative bureaucracy to get things done. A pandemic is not the time to govern by committee, nor is it the time for the Legislature to try and grab power for itself.”

Gov. Gary Herbert’s office on Wednesday declined comment on the merits of the bill.

“The governor looks forward to working with the Legislature in this very unique special session — the first of its kind. We will reserve comment on specific legislation until the session is in progress,” said spokeswoman Brooke Scheffler.

Vickers, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said his legislation would still leave the governor as “the one man in charge” in an emergency that poses looming danger.

“On other things that are less imminent and less urgent," he said, “we feel the Legislature should at least be notified — and in some cases consulted but at least be notified — so we can prepare and respond accordingly.”

Election amendments: Lawmakers will also consider election-related changes ahead of the June 30 primary election in response to the coronavirus. Rep. Jefferson Moss’ HB3006 would eliminate in-person vote centers and require by-mail balloting for the primary, though some counties would have the ability to establish drive-up voting centers where someone could vote from her or his car.

That would be a “brand-new concept” in Utah, said Justin Lee, director of elections in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

“It’s really something that’s been put in the bill to deal with COVID-19 directly, to allow for some kind of opportunity for people on Election Day who may need to go ‘in person’ but without necessarily having in-person voting locations," Lee said.

The bill would also require the lieutenant governor, who’s in charge of elections, to issue health and safety protocols to protect poll workers and government employees who are running the election. Poll workers could be required to use protective gear, wash their hands regularly and social distance from one another, for example.

Unemployment tweaks: Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, is running a bill that would eliminate a rule requiring a one-week waiting period before unemployment benefits can kick in if the governor or president has issued a state of emergency or if the federal government has agreed to pay for the benefit.

Under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), states without a waiting period will receive 100% federal funding for unemployment benefits during that first week.

Fiscal responsibility: Lawmakers will consider a resolution calling on local governments — including cities, counties and state boards like the Utah Board of Education and Board of Regents — to avoid unnecessary spending with the rest of their 2020 budgets and to limit spending in the next fiscal year.

Are all the bills related to the coronavirus?

No. One of the bills that’s up for consideration, for example, is related to municipal annexation of property. HB3004, from Rep. Steve Waldrip, appears to have nothing to do with COVID-19 but instead seeks to clarify the applicability of amendments on the process the Legislature passed during the general session this year.

Is this the only special session lawmakers will hold because of the coronavirus?

Not necessarily. Lawmakers have said this could be the first in a series of special sessions needed to manage the public health emergency and its aftermath.

— Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report