Utah Legislature approves coronavirus-related budget cuts, addresses other pandemic impacts in special session

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Speaker Brad Wilson conducts business in a special session in House Chambers, in front of video monitors and a nearly empty room, Thursday April 16, 2020

The Utah Legislature unanimously approved a proposal Thursday to bring the state to a “balanced budget” in the face of a pandemic-induced economic downturn.

SB5001 slashes spending across state government and largely wipes out new dollars authorized earlier this year in response to declining state revenue. But with the help of rainy day funds and federal dollars from the CARES Act, the Legislature was able to spare public education and social services from the most dramatic cuts.

The proposal passed Thursday implements at least a 2.2% increase in the education fund, as well as a 5% increase in the social services coffers compared to the prior year, Senate President Stuart Adams said Thursday. The budget also preserves a 1.8% increase to per-student spending.

“Because of the efforts that have been made by previous legislators, people that have sat in our seats before us, we have the ability to do those types of things, because we prepared well,” Adams said, praising the state for its prudent fiscal management and living within its means.

“This, I believe, is quite a miraculous bill,” Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said of the proposal for school funding. “I think our teachers and our students deserve it.”

The new spending plan won’t provide the 6% per-student funding increase that lawmakers approved earlier this year, before COVID-19 had wreaked havoc on state revenues. But the Legislature on Thursday reaffirmed its commitment to achieving these funding levels eventually, with a bill that was introduced and passed in the final hours of the session that requires the state to keep investing in the per-pupil amount until they reach the 6% threshold.

To preserve state aid for public schools and social services, lawmakers are pulling more than $680 million from their reserves, depleting the working and long-term rainy day funds by nearly a third, state officials say.

New revenue projections released Tuesday show the state is facing deficits of $93 million in one-time funding and $757 million in ongoing funding for the current and coming budget years — a smaller gash to the state budget than analysts had originally anticipated.

But “this may not be the end of this,” warned Sen. Jerry Stevenson, who echoed concerns raised by lawmakers during Wednesday’s Executive Appropriations Committee meeting that a fall wave of COVID-19 infections could force more economic closures and lead to further budget cuts.

Lawmakers considered a swath of other bills during Thursday’s special session meant to address the pandemic’s current and possible impacts on everything from legal proceedings and nursing homes to public safety officers.

“Who would have thought of this a year ago?” quipped Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, as the Senate voted in support of a bill outlining procedures for testing someone who has coughed on an officer while out in the field.

“Nobody would have thought of this a year ago,” he said. “But under the circumstances, it’s something that’s very critical and needed.”

The original version of SB5006, sponsored by Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, contained penalties for someone who coughed on an officer, but those were removed in the version that ultimately passed the House and Senate. The legislation does authorize court-ordered coronavirus testing of a person who’s coughed on an officer.

While the first two special sessions since the coronavirus came to Utah were all-remote, many legislators showed up in person to the state Capitol Thursday — though lawmakers on the House floor used plexiglass separation panels and those in both chambers wore face masks to protect against infection.

In his opening remarks, House Speaker Brad Wilson discouraged his colleagues from trying to “score political points” during the special session as lawmakers approved bills to help the state weather the pandemic.

“Some of us are going to be looking, potentially — I hope not — to find opportunities to score political points through this process,” Wilson said as the House convened. “But in doing so, I believe, would be a betrayal of the trust that Utahns placed in us.”

The Kaysville Republican appealed to the “better nature” of representatives to avoid partisan rancor and focus on policy, not politics, as they legislate.

As part of their work during a special session that Wilson noted has the longest agenda in state history, lawmakers approved a bill that allows the state Health Department to require testing in nursing and care facilities, which have seen 40% of all statewide deaths as a result of the pandemic.

Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo and the bill’s sponsor, said more than 30% of facilities have refused to conduct COVID-19 in their facilities and said his legislation sought to strike a balance between the need to ensure the safety of these vulnerable populations while also allowing rights to “individual liberty.”

SB5011 allows someone to decline testing — but it also provides nursing homes and care facilities the option to discharge those who make that choice. That provision of the bill raised concerns for the Disability Law Center of Utah, which has long called for testing at these sites but believes the legislation will punish “not the bad acting facilities, but the high risk population it seeks to protect.”

Staff are the ones who usually bring the virus into these facilities, the center said in an email sent to the Legislature earlier this week, a copy of which it shared with The Salt Lake Tribune.

“Yet, it is residents who must be tested, and residents who face discharge if they refuse, which could discourage them from going into the community, isolating them further,” the Disability Law Center said. “... Currently, facilities already have the ability to discharge residents who pose a threat to others, and this legislation seeks to expand that to residents who might not pose any threat whatsoever.”

Bramble, addressing similar concerns raised in the Legislature, said that the exercise of individual liberty sometimes comes with consequences.

“If an individual is under this prescriptive requirement of being tested, they have the right to refuse,” he said. “But do they have the right to endanger everyone else in the facility for that refusal?”

On the House side, Majority Whip Mike Schultz added that nursing homes and care facilities don’t have to discharge residents and would be free to explore alternatives — such as isolating these individuals from other occupants of the facility.

“The hope is that they’d be able to find a solution inside that long-term care facility to be able to keep that person segregated from others,” Schultz, R-Hooper, said.

Lawmakers also approved Thursday a tweak to a bill they passed earlier this year that created immunity in most cases for businesses from lawsuits brought forward by people exposed to the coronavirus on their property. Sen. Kirk Cullimore, the original sponsor of that bill, sought to make clear that those protections also apply to government agencies — including K-12 schools and higher education institutions.

SB5003 passed the Senate 27-2 and the House 44-30 Thursday.

And the Legislature voted to extend Utah’s state of emergency until Aug. 20, despite concerns expressed by lawmakers of both parties in both chambers.

Rep. Keven Stratton said he’d hate to prolong Gov. Gary Herbert’s emergency declaration,, arguing that lawmakers must uphold the principles of self-determination and personal responsibility. With an emergency order, “we remove some of the checks and balances that keep us who we are as a state and keep Utah great,” said Stratton, R-Orem.

And Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, said she worries about keeping the state in a prolonged emergency status that enables officials to short-cut typical purchasing rules. Greater transparency and accountability in government spending is critical as the state battles COVID-19 in the months to come, she said.

Supporters of the extension, on the other hand, said state officials need it to apply for future federal emergency funds to tap into their own disaster account. Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, said it will also give Herbert the flexibility to continue managing the coronavirus outbreak across the state.

The House ultimately passed the resolution, HJR4, by a vote of 51-22. The Senate approved it later that day with a 22-7 vote.

Both sides of the Legislature also supported a measure requiring the governor to report back to them within 24 hours of spending more than $2 million in federal funding during a pandemic and a proposal to give school districts the leeway to draw from capital funds to prop up their operations as the coronavirus delivers a hit to their budgets.

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