‘Historic’ tax cut, social media regulation, new abortion restrictions. Here’s what lawmakers decided on March 1.

The Utah Legislature is quickly passing bills in the final days of the 2023 legislative session. This blog will be updated as bills are passed, or not.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

The “historic” tax cut package lawmakers promised at the start of the 2023 session is one step away from final approval after the Senate passed HB54 on Wednesday night.

The bill drops the state’s income tax rate from 4.85% to 4.65%. Most of that cut will benefit the top 5% of income earners in the state, who will see a tax cut of anywhere between $2,000 and $9,500 annually. Most Utahns will see their income tax bill drop by up to $1,000 per year.

The latest version of the bill now includes a plan to remove the state portion of the sales tax on food, but only if voters approve a change to the Utah Constitution in 2024 that eliminates the budgetary earmark that says income taxes can only fund public and higher education and some social services. That constitutional change is currently the subject of ongoing negotiations between legislative leaders and educators.

The tax cut bill also expands an income tax exemption for Social Security recipients and broadens the earned income tax credit for low-income Utahns.

The bill needs one more vote from the House to approve the latest version. Once that happens, the package goes to Gov. Spencer Cox.

Lawmakers restructure how judges are nominated in Utah

The Utah House passed a bill Wednesday evening that would change the vetting process for state judges.

The legislation, SB129, reshapes the Judicial Nominating Commission by removing a requirement that Democrats and representatives of the Utah State Bar be included on the panel that vets judicial applicants.

Opponents, including the State Bar, argue it would make Utah’s judiciary more partisan.

”I have a hard time understanding the problem we’re solving with this bill,” said Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, who is an attorney. “We’ve got to pick people who appeal to both parties. That’s the way the system works now. That is out the window [with the change].”

But Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, who is also an attorney, said the governor should have the right to appoint who he wants on the commission.

”The State Bar has taken up too much control of the process so good, qualified applicants are not making it to the governor’s desk to be able to nominate them,” the Republican said.

The House passed the measure 52-15, with just one Republican joining the Democrats in voting no. Because a minor amendment was made in the House, the Senate still has to vote on the language before it goes to Gov. Spencer Cox, who supports the changes and has said he would sign it.

State employee raises, cash for new state buildings heads to Gov. Cox’s desk

The Utah Legislature, with little fanfare and no discussion, put the final stamp of approval on most of Utah’s $28 billion budget on Wednesday.

More than $350 million in new funding will go toward pay increases and to pay for increased benefits for state employees — that includes a 5% overall increase for state employees. There’s also money for a 3.75% “targeted” pay raise for certain state employees and an 8.75% discretionary raise for some higher education workers.

Lawmakers also set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for the construction of new state buildings. A new computing and engineering building at the University of Utah will cost taxpayers $108 million. Legislators also approved the renovation of the Cox Performing Arts Center at Utah Tech in St. George at a cost of $28 million, and updating Utah’s Olympic facilities carries a price tag of $40 million.

Lawmakers are boosting per-pupil funding in Utah’s public schools by 6% next year, or about $240 million. That’s in addition to the $196 million lawmakers already spent on the $6,000 compensation boost for teachers they approved earlier this session.

And the Legislator isn’t done spending money yet. Any legislation that appropriates $10,000 or more must win final passage by the end of the day on Thursday. The final appropriations bill will be made available to lawmakers on Friday morning and must be passed before they adjourn for the final time on Friday.

Social media regulation bill for Utah minors passes

Social media platforms will be required to verify the age of Utah users and add parental controls for accounts held by Utah minors now that legislation regulating minors’ access to social media has passed.

Senate Bill 152, sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, requires age verification of Utah residents to access a social media account and requires platforms to verify parental consent before a Utahn under 18 can open an account.

The legislation also prevents social media platforms from collecting minors’ personal information, blocks ads for minors, limits access hours and requires parents or guardians to be given access to accounts held by a minor.

Rep. Jordan Teuscher, the floor sponsor for the bill, said during Wednesday’s House debate that the legislation is about empowering parents in how they address their children’s interactions with social media.

If signed by the governor, all Utahns will be required to verify their age starting March 1, 2024, to open a social media account or to keep access to an existing account. Accounts created or held by minors will need to receive parental consent after this date.

Gov. Spencer Cox has made addressing social media usage among minors and its impact on mental health a key policy issue and has said he’ll sign legislation addressing the issue.

Emergency actions for Great Salt Lake put on ice by lawmakers

Utah lawmakers are holding back on emergency measures to help Great Salt Lake to focus on long-term solutions, senators said during media availability on Wednesday.

According to Sen. Scott Sandall, the legislature had an emergency plan in place to get more water into the lake, but “Mother Nature” helped out with the above-average snowpack this year. Sandall said because of the snowpack, immediate solutions were held back.

His comments came just an hour after members of Save Our Great Salt Lake rallied at the Capitol, asking lawmakers to take more action to increase the lake’s water level.

Senate President Stuart Adams noted the Legislature has supplied nearly $1 billion in water spending, a record amount, told reporters. “I’m sorry some people don’t feel like we’re doing enough,” Adams said.

One bill addressing water issues, SB277, passed the legislature on Wednesday to provide funding for agricultural water optimization and water conservation measures.

While the lake will benefit from the hearty snowpack and the above-average runoff that will follow, years of good winters are needed for the lake to reach a sustainable elevation.

New abortion restrictions for victims, documentation rules passed

The Legislature has passed a bill from Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, that, while providing some services for sexual assault victims and requiring additional training for law enforcement, limits victims’ access to abortion. Victim Services Amendments is one of two bills this session that would cut off the abortion ban exception for victims at 18 weeks.

Under that ban — which passed in 2020 and went into effect in June before being blocked by a district court judge — rape and incest victims are required to report the crime to law enforcement before seeking an abortion. Birkeland’s bill requires doctors to document how they are verifying that crimes have been reported, and she has said that data collected would inform future policy.

The bill has changed significantly since Birkeland announced she was opening the bill file last summer. At the time, she said victims would need to provide doctors with a law enforcement-generated case number before having an abortion.

Her sister, who considered an abortion after being sexually assaulted years ago, told The Salt Lake Tribune in October why she opposed such a measure. It was not included in the final language of the bill.

House approves measure to create a domestic violence database

The Utah House unanimously approved a bill to create a police database of domestic violence incidents on Wednesday morning. Senate Bill 117 also requires police officers to ask a series of questions to survivors of domestic violence to determine if they are in danger and refer them to resources aimed at saving their lives, including emergency shelters or counseling.

“This allows law enforcement the opportunity to speak in a way that they recognize the threat. They can help deliver those services. We still need to do a better job of connecting them with services. We’re going to keep working on it, but this is a good step,” Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson is a high-profile proponent of the legislation. Her cousin Mandy Mayne was shot and killed by her ex last year.

SB117 needs one more vote in the Senate to approve changes made by the House before heading to Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk.

Bill to keep candidates who gathered signatures off the ballot stalls

Legislation that would automatically give a political party’s nomination to a candidate who receives 70% support at the convention, kicking candidates who gathered signatures off the primary ballot, has stalled in the final days of the 2023 Legislature.

House Bill 393 from Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, was abruptly pulled from a committee agenda on Tuesday afternoon when it became clear the bill was headed toward a likely defeat. The bill was the latest salvo from Republicans in the effort to alter or even undo the 2014 SB54 compromise with Count My Vote that established the signature route for candidates to guarantee a place on the primary ballot.

Teuscher sponsored the bill at the behest of Utah GOP Chairman Carson Jorgensen, who saw the 70% threshold as a way to make the traditional caucus/convention pathway more attractive to candidates. Ironically, the 70% convention threshold was the original level of support that Count My Vote proposed to the Utah GOP in 2013, but party leaders shot that idea down, leading CMV to push forward with a ballot initiative to remove the caucus/convention system from Utah’s nominating process. Fearing that the ballot effort would be successful, legislators saved the caucus/convention path with the SB54 compromise.

It’s unlikely the bill will see the light of day before lawmakers adjourn on Friday night. Teuscher and Count My Vote representatives have been negotiating for several weeks but still haven’t reached an accord.

“We’re still working toward an agreement, but don’t have one yet,” Count My Vote spokesperson Taylor Morgan said Wednesday.

Morgan says Teuscher has assured him that he would not attempt to bring the bill up for a vote before adjournment unless they can strike a deal.

This blog will be updated throughout the day.