The Utah Legislature convened Thursday to pass a slate of bills related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including approving new coronavirus aid measures and making adjustments for the upcoming election.
This is the fourth special session that the Utah Legislature has convened in five months, as lawmakers have returned repeatedly to adjust the state budget and mete out federal funds during the coronavirus crisis.
And House Speaker Brad Wilson emphasized that lawmakers shouldn't get used to convening this often.
“We must not allow COVID-19 and this pandemic to trigger a transition from a part-time legislative body to a full-time legislative body,” the Kaysville Republican said, speaking from the House chamber. “It is simply not in the best interest of our state.”
Not all of the items up for consideration on Thursday related to the pandemic, however. The Legislature also approved a change to when cities can annex land without an annexation petition — related to the fight over a controversial proposed annexation by the town of Hideout — and passed a resolution demanding more federal money in compensation for Utah’s public lands.
Two of the bills the Legislature passed Thursday were unveiled the same day as the session, receiving no constituent comment and allowing little time for members of the public to review the language.
One of those was a massive spending bill that will extend jobless benefits for Utahns, fund personal protective equipment in schools and beef up COVID-19 test processing.
“By watching the news and from the things you read ... you know that many of the states around us are struggling,” Rep. Brad Last said while presenting the bill, HB6002, to his House colleagues. “We in Utah have planned for the worst and hope for the best. And because we do that, we have good options.”
The bill is employing savings and reserves to restore nearly $500,000 in funding for state-run medical and dental clinics that had lost an annual state subsidy that had kept them afloat. The additional money should enable some of the state clinics to remain open until the next general session, Last said.
That state funding will also provide a salary bump for teachers at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind; expand legal defense for people who can't afford representation; enhance pre- and post-conviction services and boost job training programs.
About $138 million of the federal funds appropriated under the bill will provide $300-per-week unemployment benefits to Utahns who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, Last, R-Hurricane, said. That benefit will cover three weeks from July 26 to Aug. 15.
Last said the bill also distributes roughly $122 million in CARES Act funds, including:
$25 million for broadband internet access in eastern and northern Utah;
$4 million for Wi-Fi access to residents in San Juan County, Utah’s poorest;
$15 million for classroom supplies and equipment, including personal protective gear;
$4 million in additional personal protective equipment that “in turn frees up federal funds for charter school enrollment cost increases”;
$40 million in aid to hard-hit industries, including $7.5 million for arts groups and $5 million for mining;
$3 million for outreach and direct services in multicultural communities;
$7 million to provide respite services for caretakers of individuals with disabilities;
$15 million to buy equipment and establish an overnight shift at the state’s public health lab so it can improve turnaround times for COVID-19 testing and other forms of viral testing; and
$750,000 to add intensive care unit beds.
Among the changes was to a rental assistance program that previously required tenants to attest they had suffered financial harm as a result of the pandemic. They now have to cite “negative impact” to be eligible for those dollars.
The bill, SB6009, also opens the program up to landlords to apply on behalf of their tenants.
“We’re trying to make it super easy to get this money out the door,” said Sen. Dan Hemmert, the bill’s sponsor. “The goal of this program is there will be no evictions due to lack of payment of rent until the end of the year when all this money has to be spent. We are doing everything we can to make sure that people can stay in their homes.”
As the general election nears closer, Utah lawmakers also passed a bill allowing counties to offer outdoor and in-person voting as well as drive-thru options, plus drop box and mail-in balloting for the Nov. 3 election.
The bill, SB6007, previously would have given the lieutenant governor’s office the power to cancel in-person voting in specific counties or statewide up to seven days before the election “due to health concerns.” But lawmakers stripped that portion of the bill Thursday.
That change comes after some legislators had raised concern about the open-ended nature of the lieutenant governor’s power. And a public commenter during the bill’s committee hearing said the provision presented “an inherent conflict of interest” as Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox runs for governor.
Sen. Wayne Harper, the bill’s sponsor, told reporters Thursday afternoon that there was “a lot of concern with giving somebody in the executive branch some authority that they may or may not constitutionally have the authorization to do.”
As part of the bill, the lieutenant governor’s office still is required to work with county clerks to establish protocols to protect the health and safety of voters and officials during the election. The office has also been called on to conduct a campaign to educate voters about changes in voter registration, methods and processes for casting ballots and to encourage Utahns to vote by mail rather than in-person.
Amid concerns about mail slowdowns from national postal service changes, the bill also requires counties that have a higher risk of ballots being postmarked late to work with their local post office to date stamp those ballots as they come in and to place additional drop boxes.
Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, sought an amendment supported by county clerks that would allow counties to send out ballots 28 days before the election rather than the standard 21-day period to provide more flexibility in the face of coronavirus challenges.
But her colleagues ultimately voted against the amendment.
“Most candidates, especially candidates with statewide races and extensive budgets, have already planned out through the calendar based upon these existing deadlines,” said Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi. “So I think moving the goalposts mid stream right now is a bad idea.”
In the House, Rep. Patrice Arent offered up an amendment to let officials accept mail-in ballots that are postmarked on Election Day, as was done during the June primary.
The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, resisted the change, saying that — unlike the primary — same-day voting will be available during the November election. The House rejected Arent’s amendment and passed the bill unanimously.
A resolution the Legislature approved Thursday demanding more federal money in compensation for Utah’s public lands no longer claims that the U.S. government owes the state $534 million each year.
At least, it doesn’t do so directly.
Lawmakers stripped out that figure after some raised concerns that the new public lands valuation might have the unintended consequence of driving up taxes for farmers and ranchers in the state.
But the number is still suggested indirectly in the resolution that passed by an overwhelming margin, stating that the $41 million federal payment the state received last year is a mere 8% of what the state should be getting.
“That’s stunning, to think that, my goodness … less than 8% of what it ought to be,” said Rep. Keven Stratton, who presented the position statement to his House colleagues.
The resolution put forward by Stratton, R-Orem, calls on Congress and the president to boost the PILT, or payment in lieu of taxes, that flows annually into county coffers.
Hoping to persuade the Interior Department to boost its contribution, the state has been engaged in a yearslong effort to put a price tag on Utah’s public land and estimate the property taxes it could generate if it were private. Lawmakers last year signed a $700,000 contract with a tech firm to build a land appraisal software program — the source of the $534 million estimate.
However, Rep. Casey Snider said during a Tuesday committee meeting that this estimate doesn’t take into account an agricultural tax benefit that could apply to much of the public land if it were privatized. Overlooking that relief could incentivize county appraisers to demand more in property taxes from farmers and ranchers, the Paradise Republican warned.
However, he ended up being comfortable with the amended resolution and voted for it.