facebook-pixel

The legislative session is over. Here’s what lawmakers did for you — and to you — before going home.

From diminishing some voting rights to investing big in homeless services, the Legislature had a busy last week.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Representatives huddle during floor time in the Utah House on Feb. 26, 2021. Lawmakers rushed in the final days to finalize hundreds of bills before Friday's adjournment of the 45-day session that began in late January.

The annual 45-day session came to an end at midnight Friday. Here is a look at some of the big action during the final week.

Voter restrictions

Utah lawmakers passed two bills that restrict voter rights: one making it harder to get a citizen initiative or referendum on the ballot and a second that prohibits party switching in the months leading up to a primary election.

In both instances, legislators portrayed their actions as attempts to protect Utah’s elections from influence by “outside” groups with ill intent.

On the initiative and referendum front, Sen. Jerry Stevenson blamed out-of-state groups for spending large amounts of money to push Utah to legalize medical marijuana. HB136 that he cosponsored attempts to limit such influence by banning the payment of petition passers on a per-signature basis — a move that critics say is intended to shut down voter-driven lawmaking.

Not only did Utah voters in 2018 pass the cannabis initiative but also Medicaid expansion and an anti-gerrymandering measure intended to take some of the partisanship out of redistricting. Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, pointed out that these proposals had repeatedly been rejected by the Legislature despite their broad public support, essentially leaving voters no choice but to take the issues directly to the ballot box.

All three of those initiatives relied upon paid signature gatherers. The only successful ballot petition in recent memory not dependent on professional petition passers was the effort last year to repeal the Legislature’s tax reform, including a food sales tax hike.

On the matter of primaries, Republican lawmakers decided they needed to protect the GOP from “party raiding” by Democrats or independents trying to influence the selection of nominees.

HB197 would block voters from changing party affiliation for nearly three months before a primary election. The bill was passed despite the lack of evidence that such party switchers have played a deciding role in any Republican primary — including last year’s hotly contested four-way race for governor.

In fact, a recent study found the phenomenon had little impact on the outcome of that race.

Both bills, HB197 and HB136 were sponsored by a freshman: Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan.

Homelessness and housing

Lawmakers stepped up to provide $50 million in state money toward addressing Utah’s tenacious homelessness.

Perhaps more importantly, officials announced that this funding will be matched many times over by private donations expected to ring in at an additional $730 million to expand affordable housing. And the state will attempt to bring more accountability to these efforts by designating a single person to direct and coordinate government services and programs. Some have called the position a homelessness “czar”, though advocates don’t like the term.

The largest chunk of the money, $500 million, will go toward preserving existing affordable housing, on top of the $25 million the state will put toward that purpose. Another $200 million will be spent on producing new affordable housing units for low-income and moderate-income residents.

The rest will be used to support the oversight model, along with the $15 million the Legislature has set aside.

Colorado River water

Lawmakers approved legislation crafted by Republican leaders that creates a new $9 million state agency aimed at harnessing more of the Colorado River’s diminishing flows, potentially at the expense of the six neighboring states that also tap the river.

The planned Colorado River Authority is controversial, one reason being that it is largely exempt from state open-records and open-meetings laws.

Supporters believe HB297, though, will help Utah better compete as it renegotiates the century-old multistate agreement that governs how the river’s water is shared. Critics see it largely as an effort to promote the Lake Powell pipeline project that is uniformly opposed by the other states.

“It’s important to our state to stop running our share of the water down the Colorado River. We need to recapture it. It’s our water,” said state Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George. He portrayed other states as the aggressors: “They’re making moves every day to posture in the surrounding states to take our water right away from us.”

But environmentalists and others say the effort ignores the reality of climate change, which has reduced the river’s flows by about 20% over the past two decades. Depleted by persistent drought and overuse of the Colorado, Lake Powell is less than 38% full with its water level down by 129 feet.

“This bill has been railroaded through the Utah Legislature despite widespread criticism about its climate change denial, lack of transparency and the bill’s exemption from conflict-of-interest laws,” said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City. “We do not need an expensive agency. We need transparency. We need more conservation.”

Reform repeal

Despite pleas from prosecutors in the state’s three most populous counties, the Legislature moved ahead with dismantling key pieces of last year’s bail reform, aimed at ending the system of locking up defendants before trial simply because they were too poor to afford bail.

The reforms, which only kicked in in October, replaced the bail model — posting cash or a bond to gain pre-trial freedom — with one based on risk of a defendant committing new crimes or fleeing.

While public defenders and prosecutors in the state’s largest counties say these changes are working, some law enforcement leaders — particularly the Utah Sheriffs Association — said last year’s system have caused confusion and disruption and aren’t working for rural counties.

Dixie name change

Lawmakers agreed — after several protests, debates and changes — not to block a proposed name change for Dixie State University.

But under provisions of HB278, the St. George school will have to restart the renaming process — going back to square one to form a committee to study the issue and collect more community input before making a final call. The bill also leaves open the possibility that a new name could still include “Dixie.”

Supporters of the name change pointed to a study that found nearly two-thirds of respondents outside of Utah related the term “Dixie” to racism and concluded the name was causing problems for students with recruitment for jobs and graduate schools in other states.

The prospect of a name change came nearly 30 years after the university dropped its use of the Confederate flag and more than a decade after it removed the Rebel mascot representing a Confederate.

But a handful of lawmakers fought to the bitter end against stepping out of the way of a name change, which requires legislative approval.

Freshman Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, was among those arguing that the state shouldn’t give in to the “cancel culture.”

“Mr. Potato Head is now Potato Head,” Johnson said. “Dr. Seuss is on his deathbed. Where does this stop?”

Emergency powers

An executive versus legislative branch power struggle saw lawmakers pass a bill to rein in fledgling Gov. Spencer Cox’s authority in emergencies.

SB195 would leave the power to declare emergencies and issue sweeping orders — such as face mask mandates or stay-at-home directives — for the first 30 days. But to extend these orders for a longer period, the Legislature would need to sign off.

The same increase in legislative branch authority would be granted at the local level, where a county commission or council could override an emergency order issued by the mayor or local health department.

Tribune reporters Bethany Rodgers, Taylor Stevens, Bryan Schott, Courtney Tanner, Brian Maffly and news editor Dan Harrie contributed to this article.


Return to Story