Historic Utah legislative session held in the shadow of a pandemic closes with a flurry of bills and spending

Despite the specter of COVID-19, lawmakers passed hundreds of bills and approved a $22 billion budget.

When Utah’s legislative leaders convened in January, they did so under the specter of protests that temporarily closed the state Capitol and the warning that high coronavirus case counts could upend their business early.

What unfolded was a session like none other, marked by virtual public comment, frequent coronavirus testing for lawmakers and their staff and limited in-person access. But as they emerge from the breakneck 45 days of lawmaking, legislators count it as a success, having passed a $22 billion budget and hundreds of bills that touch everything from police reform to the pandemic.

As those measures make their way to state Gov. Spencer Cox — a brand new chief executive who’s warned lawmakers he’s not scared to use his veto power — all that remains to be seen is how much of their work will now be struck down with the stroke of a pen.

“We’ll see if there’s anything we’ve done that his veto pen wants to find, and of course, if there is, we’ve always got that override opportunity,” Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters Friday. “So stay tuned. We’ll see what happens.”

Some of the proposals that drew criticism from the governor — including one that would have barred transgender girls from participating in female sports — won’t make it to his desk.

But Cox will have a chance to weigh in on some of the bills that come out of the Legislature’s efforts to curtail the power of the governor and state and local public health officials, which created one point of friction with his administration this session.

Lawmakers pushed forward a proposal to terminate the state’s mask mandate on April 10, as some legislators criticized Cox for not lifting the order himself. That measure, HB294, essentially declaring an end to the pandemic as soon as the thresholds it sets are met, won final approval Friday evening in the Senate and House and now heads to the governor. Cox in recent days he said he had concerns and “there’s a really good argument that it’s not necessary,” but said Friday he did not plan a veto.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox holds socially distanced media availability at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021, during the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session.

Lawmakers also waded into the state’s coronavirus vaccine policies, running bills to extend inoculation exemptions to college students for religious, medical or personal reasons, and to prohibit the government from requiring people to receive a COVID-19 shot.

Yet another bill passed by lawmakers would place a check on the executive branch’s ability to issue stay-home orders and other restrictions during an extended public health emergency and would elevate the Legislature’s role in steering future crisis responses. Cox has in the past expressed unspecified concerns with the proposal.

But in a news conference Friday evening, Cox said he’d worked with lawmakers to reach common ground on HB294 and the bill on future public health emergencies. While Cox declined to tell reporters which legislation he might veto, he said the pool of bills he disliked shrank on the final day of session.

“I had several bills I was planning to veto, and many of them went away today,” he said. “They’re making it a little harder for me to veto as many as I’d planned because they’re doing great work.”

Legislative leaders also entered the final day of session feeling optimistic, with the sense that they’d already put the thorniest policy debates behind them and happy with the working relationship they’d forged with the new Cox administration.

“He’s let the legislative process be the legislative process and hasn’t majored in minors,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said of Cox this week during an interview with The Tribune’s “Utah Politics” podcast.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville, conducts business on the House floor at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021, alongside a Utahraptor skull reconstruction. HB 322 creates a sixth state park in Utah that would protect the dinosaur quarry in the Dalton Wells area near Moab.

Where your taxpayer dollars will go

During a series of special sessions held in the wake of the pandemic’s onset last year, lawmakers took a machete to the budget to cut $1 billion in funds they had just approved.

This year, they had an extra $1.5 billion in extra money to spend.

That turnaround came as the state saw the second-highest tax revenue growth in the nation from April through December, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. Buoyed by that influx of cash, lawmakers passed a $100 million tax cut, put $50 million into affordable housing and homelessness and boosted education funding by $475 million.

“I couldn’t even have dreamed a year ago of being in the financial position we’re in right now,” Adams said.

House Minority Leader Brian King said in an interview Friday that he was pleased with several aspects of the state’s budget, including the commitment to increase education funding and to double-track the FrontRunner commuter rail. But he said he thinks state leaders have taken too much credit for a surplus that has mostly to do with federal government coronavirus funding.

“We ought to be more explicit and quick to acknowledge the reality that the federal government played a very important role in allowing us to do things with the budget we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do,” he said.

Some $1.23 billion in this year’s budget is reserved for major transportation and construction projects, including a little more than $100 million dollars to create the new Utah Raptor and Lost Creek state parks and to address backlogged maintenance and other enhancements at existing state parks. The Legislature will also fund transportation projects aimed at reducing congestion in the Cottonwood canyons, starting with Little Cottonwood.

A $39 million one-time request to fund trails, open space, and parks was also added to the final budget proposal.

Also included in the budget is $5 million to pay for salary increases for caseworkers at the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, many of whom don’t make enough money to get by without relying on government assistance. And the plan to merge the Utah Departments of Health and Human Services into one agency has been approved by legislative budget writers with a $1.635 million allocation.

The governor and lawmakers dropped a plan to merge the departments of environmental quality and natural resources.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun sets on the last day of the Legislature’s 2021 general session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021.

Coronavirus brings challenges & silver linings

Lawmakers convened for the session amid a wave of post-holiday coronavirus infections, when new case numbers were still topping 1,000 on many days.

They’d had some experience legislating during the COVID-19, gathering for several brief special sessions in 2020 and for periodic committee meetings. But the length and complexity of conducting the 45-day session under the pandemic’s shadow would put their safety precautions to the test.

“When we started, we didn’t know if we were going to be shut down in a week, because we’d have these outbreaks,” Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told reporters Friday.

But thanks to a regimen of rapid testing and masking and distancing precautions, the number of positive cases has stayed under control, and new opportunities for remote participation during the pandemic have offered an unexpected silver lining, Adams said.

Still, legislators say they’ve missed the groups of schoolchildren who usually crowd the hallways and the colleagues who couldn’t attend in-person because of the coronavirus.

Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, spent the entire session in virtual attendance, as did Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, though he made an appearance at the Capitol on Friday. Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, was unable to participate in the legislative process at all, as he battled COVID-19 in an intensive care unit.

On Thursday, Hawkins brought his colleagues to tears with a video message from his hospital bed, telling them he was scheduled to leave the next day for a long-term care facility where he’d learn how to walk and swallow again.

“I wish I was there,” he said, receiving a round of applause from his colleagues in the chamber.

Amid the challenges of COVID-19, and with some lawmakers out of the Capitol for much of the session, King said he thought there was another unexpected bright spot to the pandemic: “a little bit more willingness” from lawmakers “to be kind and patient” with one another.

“There was a lot more of an effort I sensed sort of on both sides to not irritate or alienate or aggravate the other side,” he said. “At least at this point, we’ve really found what we could work on together and tried to not poke at each other and not fight about things. When issues have come up, we’ve communicated with each other about those issues and we’ve got them resolved.”