The threat of COVID hasn’t slowed the Utah Legislature’s push for new laws — lots of them

Lawmakers have already opened nearly 1,000 bill files ahead of the Jan. 19 start date.

The 2021 Utah Legislature is still weeks away, but there are already nearly 1,000 bills proposed, with more on the way.

In a normal year, that’s not out of the ordinary. But, this is not a normal year, as legislative leaders worry a COVID outbreak on Capitol Hill could force them to cut the 45-day session short.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to deal with legislators or others getting COVID,” says Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has already upended the normal legislative process. In April, Utah held its first completely virtual special session, with lawmakers meeting and passing legislation remotely. That remote option will continue through the 2021 general session, which is one reason legislative leaders believe they’ll be able to avoid too much disruption if the virus does hit the Capitol.

There will also be rapid testing for lawmakers who choose to attend the session in person. Other virus prevention measures include plexiglass dividers between desks on the House and Senate floor and four brand new committee rooms to allow the public and lawmakers to maintain social distancing during legislative hearings.

The public will be allowed to attend, but face masks will be required, and social distancing rules in force, limiting the number of people that can be accommodated. Online committee hearings and floor debate are intended to encourage public access.

But, preparing for the worst while hoping for the best, lawmakers seem to be frontloading the session with bills ready to go.

“We’re telling our members to get their bills drafted early, get them in committees early, and let’s try to be proactive rather than reactive if we end up with problems,” says Adams.

That worry is one of the reasons lawmakers poured $400 million of new education money into the base budget earlier this month. Legislators use the base budget as a mechanism to ensure the government is funded in the unlikely case the governor issues a veto or they can’t reach agreement on the budget before the end of the session.

“There’s tremendous concern about how we get through the session if there’s disruption,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Layton. “We wanted to make sure we funded some of the core things in government, especially education.”

Included in the base budget is a much-ballyhooed $1,500 bonus for teachers. Since the base budgets must pass by the 10th day of the session, which is Jan. 28 this year, it’s a good bet that spending plan, and those bonuses, will be set by mid-February.

The glut of early legislation is a bit out of the ordinary, but given the extraordinary circumstances amid a pandemic, it’s not particularly eyebrow-raising. During the general session that ended in March, lawmakers introduced 832 pieces of legislation and passed 510. The session in 2019 saw the most bills introduced and passed since 2007, with 842 bills introduced and 574 passed.

Not every proposed bill will be introduced during the session. Some are abandoned while others are sidelined due to a lack of time. Legislative staff are already working overtime to draft bills lawmakers designate as a priority — senators each get five priority bills, while House members get four. As there are 29 senators and 75 representatives, that means 445 bills are designated as a “priority” before the session begins.

According to the publicly available number of open bill files, there are five senators who requested at least 20 pieces of legislation, with Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, topping the list at 28. On the House side, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, has the most at 20.

Given the hybrid nature of the upcoming session, with lawmakers attending committee meetings and floor debates both in person and virtually, the flow of legislation could slow significantly. But, Adams says the last thing he wants is to sacrifice public input. So, if that means lawmakers get to fewer bills this year, he’s fine with that.

“One of the biggest concerns I have is the vetting process. We don’t get good ideas unless the bills are vetted. No matter what happens, we have to make sure we don’t shorten up that part so we make sure to allow for public input,” he said.