Utah lawmakers may tackle some hot-button issues during next week’s special session

Along with redistricting, lawmakers are pushing Gov. Cox to include blocking vaccine mandates, Dixie State name change and bail reform on the agenda.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Legislative leaders are pushing Gov. Spencer Cox to include several controversial issues on the agenda for next week's special legislative session.

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Next Tuesday, the Utah Legislature kicks off a special session to approve new political maps for the state, capping off the once every decade redistricting process. Expect a few other meaty issues to be on the agenda, too.

Legislative leaders are currently negotiating with Gov. Spencer Cox on which items he will include on the agenda for the special session. Lawmakers say the session could last up to two weeks as they work to approve new maps for Utah’s four congressional seats, the state school board and 75 state House and 29 state Senate districts.

Legislative sources say lawmakers want to include some other issues that could generate political heat ahead of Thanksgiving.

Vaccine mandates

Legislators have been keen to stand up to the Biden administration about the yet-to-be-seen rule requiring businesses with 100 or more employees to either mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for employees or implement regular testing.

The politically potent issue was the subject of a special legislative hearing last month. Lawmakers listened to several hours of public comment as hundreds of Utahns swamped committee rooms to show their opposition to the proposed Biden mandate.

It is not clear what, if anything, lawmakers can do to oppose action by the federal government. The state has joined with several others in a lawsuit against the administration’s requirement that employees of companies with federal contracts must be vaccinated. Attorney General Sean Reyes is ready to file suit when the White House makes the private employer rule public.

“I’ve never seen an administration so recklessly disregard what’s in the best interest of workers and employees. I get the reason the government wants to get people vaccinated. There are so many businesses doing it right now without a mandate. We need to let businesses manage this in the way they want to manage it,” Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Lawmakers hatched a strategy to use the way the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) interacts with Utah to stop the mandate. The state enforces workplace safety independent of the federal government, and leaders believed the state could refuse to enforce the emergency Biden rule until it expired. That plan hit a significant roadblock last month when the federal Department of Labor said they were moving to revoke the state’s independent status, at least partially, because Utah refused to enforce a previous emergency COVID safety rule for health care workers.

On Thursday morning, the Biden administration set a January 4 deadline for businesses with 100 or more employees to mandate vaccines or implement regular testing.

Dixie State name change

Late last month, the Utah Board of Higher Education approved changing the name of the St. George school to Utah Tech University. The board had until Nov. 1 to submit a new name proposal to the Legislative Management Committee under a bill passed at the end of the 2021 session.

The name-change proposal sprung out of concerns that the term “Dixie” conjured up perceptions of racism and was possibly hurting graduates when they looked for employment.

The volume on the debate surrounding the name change has increased dramatically in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the Washington County Commission unanimously approved a resolution to keep “Dixie” in the school’s name and asked lawmakers to reject the proposal during the upcoming session.

Brad Bennett with the Defending Southwestern Utah Heritage Coalition says his group is pushing lawmakers hard to reject the name change.

“We’re agitated about this. The school has a 110-year brand that’s thriving right now. People in southern Utah don’t want this change. We want lawmakers to vote in a way that reflects what their constituents want,” Bennett said.

Many lawmakers thought the issue would wait until the 2022 session in January, but leaders appear ready to tackle it earlier.

Bail reform

Utah lawmakers passed sweeping reforms to Utah’s cash bail system in the waning hours of the 2020 Legislature. Backers of that move argued the process allowed wealthier Utahns to go free while poorer residents who could not afford bail stayed behind bars. The changes allowed judges to assess the risk to the community when setting bail.

Lawmakers repealed many of those changes earlier this year after getting a commitment from many stakeholders to continue discussing the issue.

Those talks may have borne some fruit, and legislative leaders are pushing Gov. Spencer Cox to include the issue on next week’s agenda, but it is not certain he will accede to that request.

Gov. Gox is expected to issue the special session call on Friday.