In case you missed it, here’s a quick roundup of the highlights of what’s been happening in the Utah legislative session in the past few days.
The legislative session is only two weeks into its 45-day run and already lawmakers have wrapped up a $21 billion base budget that includes the lion’s share of the funds and spending priorities for the coming year. Those bills won final legislative approval Friday and were sent to Gov. Spencer Cox.
There are a lot more funding decisions to make with $1.5 billion or more left on the table, so the jockeying over money is far from over. But a basic spending plan will be in place to keep government operating if COVID-19 shuts down the Capitol.
A prominent feature of the base budget is $400 million in new funding for public education — a decision made even before the legislative session began. That spending boost included money to cover anticipated student growth and inflation, as well as one-time $1,500 bonuses for teachers and lesser amounts for many school staffers.
Lawmakers also are directing school districts that some $274 million in federal pandemic-relief aid for education must be targeted to help students who’ve fallen behind because of the coronavirus and remote classes.
The package also contains enough money to give a 3% labor market pay increase to state employees, higher education workers and staff in the legislative and judicial branches. Funding also covers health insurance increases.
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One lawmaker was hospitalized from the coronavirus and two others tested positive and were working from home.
Rep. Jon Hawkins, a 42-year-old Pleasant Grove Republican, has been unable so far to participate in the legislative session, according to a post on his official Facebook page that requested Utahns of all political stripes “come together in prayer for Jon and his family.”
Legislative leaders had prepared for the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak and instituted an array of public health measures, such as requiring lawmakers to undergo twice-weekly rapid tests as a condition of attending meetings in person. Legislators are also supposed to wear masks on the chamber floor except when addressing their colleagues during an official proceeding.
It hardly would be the Utah Legislature, controlled by a supermajority of conservative Republicans, without the introduction of one or more bills aimed at tightening abortion laws. This year is no exception — despite murmurs from some lawmakers that they are growing increasingly fatigued of annual returns to the topic.
The marquee bill so far is HB253, which would compel Utah women seeking an abortion to watch an online course displaying “medically accurate” images of the procedure and then attest under penalty of perjury that they’ve viewed the presentation from start to finish.
Planned Parenthood Association of Utah’s Karrie Galloway said the measure seems to be aimed at “a shaming of women,” one based on the misguided premise that women need to be educated again and again before they exercise their legal right to an abortion.
Bill-sponsoring Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan, says his interest is only in ensuring “the woman receives relevant and complete information,” and he finds it baffling that anyone would see a problem with making sure a person is fully informed before undergoing any medical procedure.
However, freshman Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden and a retired OB-GYN physician, said she’s never seen an informed consent form that warns patients against committing perjury.
The bill was introduced midweek and hasn’t yet been assigned to a committee for a public hearing.
Gun rights advocates have for years pushed for an end to state-required permits for people to carry a concealed firearm.
There was one big obstacle in their path, by the name of Gary Herbert.
Herbert, governor for the past 11 years, was conservative and certainly no pro-gun control enthusiast. But he was swayed by arguments that doing away with concealed-carry permits would make Utahns less safe because it would scrap mandatory firearms familiarity training. The permitting system also allows daily automated court background checks that screen out those who commit any felony or other offense that would bar them from legally owning a firearm.
But Herbert has retired and there’s a new governor in town. Gov. Spencer Cox has said that he agrees with the bill.
HB60, sponsored by St. George GOP Rep. Walt Brooks, flew through the Utah House last week on a 54-19 vote, and looks unstoppable as it now moves to the Senate for consideration.
Dozens of proposals aimed at reforming policing in the state have been brought to the Legislature after a summer of discontent and protests, and some are beginning to face their first tests of support among lawmakers.
In the House, West Valley City Republican Rep. Craig Hall introduced HB245, which attempts to tighten requirements on the use of “no-knock” warrants that allow police to burst into someone’s home without warning to make an arrest or seize evidence.
The use of these warrants has been under scrutiny since the death of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville woman who was shot and killed after police forcibly entered her apartment using a no-knock warrant last March.
While these warrants have been banned in Louisiana, lawmakers in Utah are being asked to add restrictions, including allowing them only in cases where there is an imminent threat of injury or death. They also would require an extra level of screening by a police supervisor and would be confined to daytime hours.
HB245 has yet to be assigned to committee for its first hearing.
On the Senate side of Utah’s Capitol, SB51 passed Wednesday without a single dissenting vote and heads to the House.
The bill is aimed at raising the bar for charging protesters with gang enhancements that can result in dramatically tougher sentences. Essentially, the proposal would attempt to ensure that these enhancements are used in cases of crimes of violence against people, not property.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill made international headlines last summer when he used Utah’s gang enhancement law to bring increased penalties against the protesters who allegedly damaged his building during a July demonstration.
Those charges — which included a potential life sentence for a woman who allegedly purchased paint — were later reduced by an independent prosecutor.