Utah’s lawmakers won’t extend COVID-19 state of emergency

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) In this April 16, 2020, file photo, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and Senate workers conduct business during the Utah Legislature's first-ever digital special session at the Capitol. Lawmakers are scheduled to meet in their sixth special session of the year beginning Thursday, Aug. 20.

Citing a lack of support among House and Senate leadership, Utah lawmakers said Wednesday that they will not extend the governor’s state of emergency related to the coronavirus pandemic before it lapses at the end of this week.

Rep. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, announced that decision at Wednesday’s Political Subdivisions Interim Committee meeting as he pulled the item related to the state’s Emergency Powers Act and the state of emergency from discussion.

“Between the caucuses, the majority caucuses, and House and Senate leadership, there is not support for modifications at this time, nor is there support from the Legislature at this time to extend the state of emergency,” he explained.

Gov. Gary Herbert still has the authority to issue a new state of emergency before the current one expires Thursday at midnight, and Anderegg said he believes the governor will have “compelling reason” to do so.

Anna Lenhardt, communications director in the Governor’s Office, said Wednesday afternoon that Herbert was working with legislative leadership “to determine the best path forward.”

Herbert was expected to address the issue further at his monthly televised news conference with PBS Thursday morning.

In an email to the Legislative Pandemic Response Team on Wednesday night, Ron Gordon, general counsel in the Governor’s Office, said Herbert intended to declare a state of emergency and reissue six additional executive orders Thursday. Those include:

House Speaker Brad Wilson said in a statement on the Legislature’s decision that while emergency powers are “rightfully granted to the executive branch, they have historically been for short periods of time, typically to address natural disasters. These powers were never contemplated to span months or longer.”

“At this time, the Legislature has decided to not consider extending the emergency declaration,” he continued. “As legislative leaders, we are having ongoing discussions with the Governor’s Office about the appropriate use of emergency powers and will evaluate this policy over the coming months.”

Wilson said lawmakers have asked the governor to review and re-evaluate more than 50 emergency orders he has issued over the last few months and to determine “the appropriate next steps” for dealing with the pandemic.

The Governor’s Office said Wednesday that it was working to compile a list of all the directives and orders that were set to expire Thursday along with the state of emergency. Anderegg said local government and school district emergency orders would not be affected, unless they were conditioned upon the state’s state of emergency.

While some have raised concerns that the end of the state of emergency would lead Utah to lose out on millions in federal dollars available to help states weather the coronavirus, Anderegg said that isn’t the case.

“We checked thoroughly between all the federal law, the FEMA regulations and whatnot as to if any or some or all of the federal dollars associated with the state of emergency might be put in jeopardy and by and large the answer is no,” he said. “So if you are told by anyone in an executive agency that $114 million might be in jeopardy or $250 million for unemployment insurance, the answer is unequivocally no. Those monies can and will continue.”

Anderegg said there may be some FEMA money available to the Utah National Guard that could be affected but that the governor could issue a new state of emergency to secure those funds.

The decision from legislative leadership to pull the resolution extending the state of emergency comes as lawmakers have received a number of phone calls and emails in recent days from a group that would like to see it expire.

A series of constituent emails shared with The Salt Lake Tribune showed many were concerned about government overreach, arguing in form emails that maintaining a state of emergency for months is a “complete distortion of the meaning of an emergency” and has negatively impacted small businesses.

Senate Majority Leader Stuart Adams said in an interview that the Legislature’s move not to extend the state of emergency and to pull the bill amending the Emergency Management Act came as a result of conversations over the past few days among legislative leaders as well as in Republican caucus meetings, which are typically closed to the public.

Constituent comments also likely played a role, he said.

“There has been a lot of public input,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people who are concerned about the extension. I can’t imagine that didn’t have some [effect] but I just don’t know the extent of what that had.”

The progressive Alliance for a Better Utah had encouraged Utahns on the other side of the issue to contact their legislators as well and urge them to extend the state of emergency. Its expiration, the group argued, would mean that “Utah will not be able to stop the spread of the pandemic.”

Utah has been in a state of emergency since the day the first coronavirus case was diagnosed in the state and the Legislature in June approved a resolution extending the state of emergency to Thursday, though not all lawmakers were in support of the measure. The bill passed 51-22 in the House and 22-7 in the Senate and support for another extension appears to have diminished further.

House Minority Leader Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said Wednesday that he was supportive of the decision to leave the emergency declaration to the governor.

“The chief executive is in a much better position, on a day-to-day basis, to appropriately adapt to facts on the ground than 104 legislators,” he said.

The Salt Lake City lawmaker also said he supported putting “some guardrails in place” on the governor’s emergency powers to ensure whoever holds the position can effectively respond to public safety threats.

“It’s a tough balancing act to carry out,” he said. “What we see right now is a lack of consensus on how to carry out that balancing act. I’m not surprised by that lack of consensus.”

Anderegg said lawmakers likely had the necessary votes to proceed with revisions to the Emergency Management Act but said there were not enough to sustain a veto override “if the governor didn’t like some of the constraints we put in place.”

Adams said he’d like to see changes made to the Emergency Management Act, which he believes was created contemplating a 30-, 60- or even 90-day emergency like an earthquake or fire, not an ongoing one like a pandemic.

“Our founding fathers envisioned, I think, that the Legislature or the legislative body would be setting the policy and the executive body — whether it’s a governor or a mayor, whoever it might be — actually carries out those and there’s a check and balance,” he said.

The Senate president said he expected lawmakers would contemplate changes to the Emergency Management Act during the Legislature’s general session early next year but didn’t give many details on what those adjustments might entail.

“It’ll be interesting to see and hopefully the viewers will stay tuned for the general session,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated 4:10 p.m., Aug. 19,2020, to add comments from the House minority leader and include additional comments from committee chair. Another update was posted at 4:28 p.m. to add comments from the House speaker. A third update was posted at 5:01 p.m. to add comments from the House minority leader. A final update was posted at 6:12 p.m. adding comments of the Senate president.