As the COVID-19 health crisis stretched into its third year, Utah’s part-time Legislature inserted itself into health care decisions for local governments and passed restrictions meant to limit the media’s ability to report on lawmakers’ actions.
During the opening moments of the 2022 general session, lawmakers made it their top priority to challenge temporary vaccine mandates imposed by Salt Lake and Summit counties — all during a record-setting surge of COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant. Lawmakers voted to abolish mask requirements in the state through SJR3.
Additionally, Utah lawmakers introduced a bill, HB182, that would exempt the Utah Capitol and other state-run facilities from the authority and jurisdiction of local health departments.
“It clarifies legislative intent that state employees and facilities maintain their independence and are not subject to political subdivision emergency declarations,” said the bill’s floor sponsor Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy. “The reasoning behind that is because municipalities don’t have internal health departments and so those types of emergency power should be left to the political subdivisions that do.”
The bill also bars municipalities from exercising emergency powers in response to a pandemic.
HB182 received final passage from the Senate on Friday on a 22 to 4 vote, with nearly all of the Republican majority voting in favor of the bill.
Another COVID-19-related bill, HB63, would exempt employees from COVID-19 vaccine mandates if they have a health care provider’s note that says they were previously infected with the virus.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Jefferson Burton, R-Salem, previously called the proposed legislation, HB63, a “cleanup bill,” referencing a similar bill the Utah Legislature passed last year that prohibited employers from mandating vaccines in the workplace.
“Since the beginning of COVID ... things have changed dramatically with regard to the way the virus operates,” Burton said during a committee hearing last month. “It was felt that these changes needed to be made based on those conditions.”
The bill would also prevent employers from keeping or maintaining an employee’s COVID-19 test results unless required by law. Under the bill, employers cannot refuse to hire prospective employees or terminate an employee due to their vaccine status. Burton’s bill passed the Senate with a 20 to 6 vote and the House on a 60 to 15 vote on Friday.
One bill — HB60, sponsored by St. George Republican Rep. Walt Brooks — would have prohibited the requirement of vaccine passports by most employers, businesses and government entities. But the Senate never picked the bill up for debate.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has repeatedly aired that he isn’t in favor of lawmakers proposing mandates.
“I don’t like mandates. I don’t like mandates when Democrats propose them. I don’t like it when Republicans propose them,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday night. “As COVID has dissipated in our state, as rates have gone down significantly we’ve seen those … vaccine requirements go away. I’m grateful for businesses that did that, I asked them to do that and most of them followed through and I think that’s just a better way to handle it.”
More police records stay private, and the press loses access at the Capitol
Lawmakers took action to limit media access to state legislators in the Capitol — a move that ignited criticism from media outlets and press advocacy organizations.
Reporters are now restricted from entering the House and Senate floor of the Capitol without specific permissions.
In the House, through HR1, credentialed reporters need to seek permission from the house speaker or speaker’s designee to conduct and record interviews in nonpublic areas of the chamber, conference rooms and halls. In the Senate, credentialed reporters need the permission of a Senate media designee to enter the floor to interview a lawmaker.
Both resolutions were sponsored by Republicans and contained similar language.
Each rules resolution also requires reporters to obtain approval from a committee chair before standing behind a committee room dais. Photographers and videographers often stand behind the dais during a committee meeting to capture footage of a lawmaker or witness testifying for or against a bill.
Lawmakers also moved unanimously to pass a bill that would make certain internal police records inaccessible to the public.
Under HB399, Garrity statements — which are required interviews given by public employees — would remain private records.
Representatives from the Utah Highway Patrol, Draper fire department and the Utah Fraternal Order of Police supported the bill, saying it would keep the sensitive records private. Many journalists said the bill would make it more difficult to hold police officers accountable.
Cox has indicated that he will sign the legislation.
“This is one with strong bipartisan support,” Cox said. “It’s rare that you get Republicans and Democrats agreeing across the board.”
The death penalty stays, and law enforcement gets a ‘duty to intervene’
The biggest criminal justice-related bill this session ultimately failed. A proposed law that attempted to abolish the death penalty in Utah inspired a lengthy and emotional public comment early in the session but didn’t survive its first committee hearing.
Lawmakers came to a consensus about a number of other bills related to police conduct, like Sen. Jani Iwamoto’s so-called “duty to intervene” bill. SB127 requires law enforcement officers to report a colleague’s misconduct and bans any retaliation against the reporting officer. It was passed with support from both law enforcement agencies and activists.
HB171 codifies that police can’t lie to children during interrogations to elicit a confession. While law enforcement can use deception while interrogating adults, officials argued children’s brains aren’t fully developed and are thus more susceptible to being manipulated into a false confession in high-stress situations. Illinois and Oregon passed a similar law last year.
Another bill, HB124, sets limits on when and how officers can execute no-knock warrants. If signed into law, police officers will now be required to wear clothing that identifies them as law enforcement when serving such warrants. The bill also sets a preference for those warrants to be served during the day and prevents their use in cases solely involving misdemeanors.
Recognizing that first responders are exposed to trauma on the job, lawmakers this session earmarked $5 million to provide mental health services to first responders and their families. The money from HB23 is meant to fund grants to help agencies cover the costs of those resources.
Law enforcement data collection is also getting a boost, as SB150 allocates $220,000 to create a Criminal Justice Data Management Task Force. The bill is aimed at improving how officials and the public track crime and enforcement trends.
Other bills passed that passed the House and Senate include HB117, which creates a system to keep secret a domestic violence or human trafficking victims’ address from a past perpetrator, and SB53, which classifies reckless driving to include anyone driving over 105 mph on the highway and adds increased penalties for street racing.
Cox asked for $128 million for homelessness. He got $55 million.
Two major bills on homelessness moved through the Legislature this session, one creating a grant program for deeply affordable housing projects and another that encourages local governments to collaborate on finding winter overflow shelters.
While the governor recommended setting aside roughly $128 million for projects to house the homeless, lawmakers only agreed to fund $55 million of that amount.
Legislative leaders and the state’s homeless services coordinator, Wayne Niederhauser, say that’s still an unprecedented amount of funding. But to anti-poverty advocates, it’s a major missed opportunity when lawmakers were sitting on a $2 billion budget surplus and had received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid.
Under SB238, the $55 million in funding will first go to the state’s office of homeless services, which will award it through a grant process to developers of deeply affordable housing.
The Other Side Village, an effort to build roughly 430 tiny homes on Salt Lake City’s west side, is one such project, and its leaders had hoped for a $20 million grant to start construction. Niederhauser acknowledged they likely won’t get that much with the reduced funding amount.
State lawmakers have also approved a bill, HB440, that would require Salt Lake County’s mayors to work together to find additional emergency shelter space from October through April.
Local leaders would have to submit their plans to the state by September. If they miss the deadline or Niederhauser’s office finds the proposal insufficient, state officials could take matters into their own hands by increasing capacity limits at existing shelters or identifying hotels and motels to convert into a temporary overflow space.
Salt Lake City leaders have objected that they have largely shouldered the burden for finding stopgap winter solutions for the region’s shelter bed shortages. And several lawmakers representing the city say HB440 won’t fix that problem.
A bill targeting a polluter and swap for Bears Ears land go nowhere
In a stinging setback for trust lands administrators, the Senate blocked a resolution needed to move forward on a plan to trade state trust sections out of Bears Ears National Monument.
The School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, had lobbied hard for HJR16, which handily passed the House, but was denied a hearing in the Senate. The bill would have given the Legislature’s blessing to trade nearly 160,000 acres of trust lands, mostly in San Juan County, for 142,000 federal acres with high mineral potential in 19 counties.
Unless the Legislative Management Committee acts in the next few months, the swap could be stalled by at least seven years, according to SITLA officials. The deal would bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the school trust fund and open up many areas in rural Utah to mineral development, SITLA Director David Ure told lawmakers.
Some lawmakers argued that the trade could be used against the state in its forthcoming lawsuit seeking to reverse President Joe Biden’s decision to reinstate the 1.3-million-acre monument that his predecessor Donald Trump had dramatically reduced.
While the Senate’s refusal to approve the Bears Ears exchange could set back lithium and helium development in southern Utah, it did pass a resolution in support of developing Utah’s deposits of “critical” minerals, which include helium and lithium.
SCR3, sponsored by Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, “recognizes that renewable energy production is increasing across the state and the country and there is a heightened need for critical minerals, rare earth elements, and many other minerals, including copper, to meet the infrastructure, collection, distribution, and transmission requirements to foster a reliable and affordable energy economy.”
The resolution and a companion bill, SCR2, voice direct opposition to federal land-conservation designations, which “lock up more federal land” and prevent the public from using and benefiting from it. Most House Democrats opposed SCR2, which also alleges such designations ironically impede efforts to improve wildlife habitat and promote biodiversity.
Cox has already signed both of these resolutions.
Lawmakers passed legislation requiring the Union Pacific railroad to be responsible for maintaining hundreds of at-grade rail crossings around Utah.
A second bill targeted at Union Pacific — HB405, sponsored by House Majority Leader Mike Schultz — would have required all switcher locomotives, used for assembling long trains in Salt Lake City and Ogden rail yards, to be powered by either electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. But Schultz withdrew the bill during its Senate hearing this week after receiving commitments from the railroad to re-power some of its Utah-based locomotives with cleaner “Tier 2″ equipment.
Union Pacific’s 45 switcher locomotives are among the most polluting in the nation and must be run constantly during winter when Salt Lake City sees its worst air quality of the year.
The Legislature passed a bill clarifying that ATVs are not permitted to travel on lakebeds and river channels, which are classified as sovereign lands of the state. Sponsored by Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, in response to rampant motorized use on the exposed bed of Great Salt Lake, HB317, would make such trespassing violations punishable as a class B misdemeanor.
More state oversight of the UTA, less on ATVs
And as demographers project Utah’s population to nearly double by 2060, lawmakers passed a bill that would transfer the oversight of major transit projects currently under the Utah Transit Authority to the Utah Department of Transportation.
HB322, sponsored by state Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, allows the state to invest more funds and have more direct oversight of UTA projects that are state-funded. The Senate passed the bill on Thursday, which now waits for Cox’s signature.
Lawmakers also passed HB146, which would bar cities and counties from regulating ATV businesses. The bill, which originally concerned food trucks, was amended at the last minute, and the ATV provisions were never heard in committee.
The amended legislation blindsided Grand County and Moab officials, whose constituents have been calling for tougher rules after rented machines appeared on their streets under an earlier law that allows “street legal” ATVs on all Utah streets, even though their noise levels far exceeds those of trucks and cars.
A turbulent session for education
Utah teachers say they feel that the Legislature took aim at public education this session.
“This year has had more than its share of bad education bills that do not help address the many needs of our students and create wedges in the important partnership educators have with parents,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state.
The most concerning for those in the field were four bills targeting curriculum and educators’ lesson plans. The measures appear to be an offshoot of the conservative push that has grown across the country in the past year against critical race theory, and all of Utah’s versions came from Republican lawmakers.
One of the measures sought to allow parents to scrutinize instructional materials for all grade levels and subject matters in Utah’s public schools before approval for use. Another would have required teachers to post their class syllabuses and a list of learning materials online for anyone to inspect. Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, pulled that proposal after a petition against it gathered more than 30,000 signatures.
Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, also proposed two controversial bills, one to punish both K-2 teachers and college professors for talking about controversial topics in the classroom. That was met with immediate pushback in the education community. A second measure would have let parents sue school districts or education officials for any perceived infringement of their rights, namely if a teacher taught something a parent said was disagreeable.
None of those bills passed, but teachers say they still see them as an attack on the job they’re doing and a message that they’re being closely watched.
The Legislature did pass a controversial bill that bans any books from school libraries and classrooms that contains “pornographic or indecent” content.
“I think we know the things that are most egregious,” said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who’s sponsored the measure. “We can’t leave them there and do nothing.”
The passage of HB374 comes in response to a book banning movement that has been led by conservative parent groups across the nation.
There was a proposal to create school vouchers to allow students to take public school funding when transferring to private schools. That failed near the end.
Education leaders celebrated that result, with Matthews saying she feared it would “siphon money without accountability.” They also applauded measures to provide extra teacher prep days, full-day kindergarten options and period products in public schools.
And there was broad support for a bill spurred by the recent deaths of two young Utah kids by suicide. That bill, from Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, will start collecting demographic data on bullying so schools can better respond to the issue.
Lawmakers also increased the funding designated per student by about 6%. But the overall amount of money designated for the Education Fund shrank due to tax cuts. The Legislature also passed a bill to rebrand the Education Fund as the Income Tax Fund as lawmakers looked for “flexibility” in future spending.