Utah’s elected lawmakers have spent the last 45 days debating and passing legislation that will shape the state’s future.
From banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors to creating a new state flag, the bills approved by the 2023 Legislature — and later signed by Gov. Spencer Cox — will have immediate impacts on everything from the way Utahns get an education to the air they breathe.
Here are some of the bills and issues the Legislature has focused on this year, and how those decisions will impact the Beehive State:
Transgender health care
One of the most controversial items of the 2023 general session was passed and signed during the first two weeks of the annual lawmaking effort. Lawmakers rushed to pass SB16, which banned most gender-affirming health care for transgender youth in the state. Cox wasted no time signing the bill into law.
The legislation, pushed by Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, bans doctors from prescribing hormone therapy for minors who have been diagnosed with “gender dysphoria,” which is a psychological condition resulting from a conflict between a person’s gender identity and the gender they were assigned at birth. The ban only applies to new patients.
That ban took effect immediately after Cox signed the bill and will remain in place while the Utah Department of Health and Human Services examines data about the effectiveness and potential long-term impacts of hormone treatments on minors and makes recommendations to lawmakers. There is no deadline for the completion of the study.
SB16 also blocked body-altering surgeries like breast reduction or augmentation on transgender youth, but does not prohibit those same procedures on non-transgender minors in Utah.
A quick eight working days into the session, lawmakers passed a measure creating the largest school voucher program in state history.
The bill — HB215, which has also already been signed by Gov. Spencer Cox — sets up a $42 million taxpayer-funded program to send students to private school or to be home-schooled. It’s called the “Utah Fits All Scholarship” and was described by sponsor Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, as a way to give families more choices outside of the public education system.
It was opposed by teachers and nearly every education organization in Utah, but passed the House and Senate in wide enough margins that state voters cannot launch an effort to recall it.
The bill also included a $6,000 salary and benefits raise for every teacher across the state — which was made contingent on passing the vouchers, and is set to take effect this fall. Educators bristled at the two issues being tied together, calling it disingenuous.
Teachers and parents were excited to see the final passage of a bill that funds optional full-day kindergarten programs across the state.
HB477, which passed in the final days of the session, allocates $25 million this year to have interested school districts create the programs, while still offering part-time kindergarten classes for interested parents. It’s the first time the entirety of that funding has been provided by lawmakers. Last year, a similar effort was passed but didn’t have enough money behind it to cover the expansion of kindergarten programs.
Another measure, HB308, which does away with assigning a single letter grade to each of Utah’s public schools, largely based on how students perform on standardized exams, also passed Thursday morning. The system will be replaced with a new dashboard that shows how a school does in several categories and is aimed at giving parents a more nuanced look into a school’s strengths and weaknesses.
Since its abortion trigger ban was blocked by a district court judge last summer, the Legislature has in multiple ways expressed its displeasure with the injunction.
Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, said during a committee meeting that “the trigger law was also a trigger to” his Joint Resolution Amending Rules of Civil Procedure on Injunctions, also known as HJR2. The passed version of the joint resolution will limit when a judge can issue a preliminary injunction, and allow the attorney general’s office to ask a judge to reconsider holds on laws that are currently enjoined.
Beyond giving the state another way to get rid of a pause on the trigger law, it will also curb judges’ ability to stop future “controversial” laws, Brammer said.
And while the Legislature waits for the courts to decide what will happen to the abortion ban, lawmakers worked to expand that bill’s restrictions.
Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, who was the House sponsor for the original trigger law, introduced HB467. Under the bill, Utah will stop issuing licenses to abortion clinics in May, and will prohibit them starting in January.
The bill, with more than 1,000 lines of text, will change the abortion law in numerous other ways. It makes violating Utah’s abortion laws unprofessional conduct for health care providers, requires doctors to explain perinatal hospice and palliative care options as alternatives to abortion to women considering the fetal abnormality exception, and cuts off abortion for victims of sexual assault and incest at 18 weeks.
Another passed bill, which sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, says is aimed at expanding services for victims, also limits abortions for them at 18 weeks.
While providing some services for sexual assault victims and requiring additional training for law enforcement, the bill also would require doctors to document how they are verifying that victims have reported the crime to law enforcement. Under the blocked ban, rape and incest victims are required to report the crime to law enforcement before seeking an abortion.
Pregnant women and health care
As more people will likely be pregnant due to the new abortion restrictions, the Legislature approved extra financial support for pregnant women in the form of a tax credit.
The incentive, which was included in Cox’s proposed budget, was initially part of a bill introduced by Lisonbee, but was later added to a larger House tax bill, HB54. The measure adds an additional dependent credit in the year of that dependent’s birth.
While the proposal has been praised for the additional support it offers parents, some advocates for pregnant people and abortion rights have expressed concerns that it will lead to a fetus being codified as a person in Utah law. Such “personhood” measures, they argue, give the state more leeway to erode abortion access and could lead to pregnant people being criminalized if a fetus is harmed.
Several bills considered this session also aimed to improve health care for low-income moms, primarily by adjusting Medicaid. The state/federal program finances about 22% of births in Utah.
One bill, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, extends Medicaid postpartum coverage from 60 days to a full year.
“This bill is an opportunity to say to all women we care about your physical and mental health and well-being,” said the bill’s floor sponsor Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-Salt Lake City. She described the bill as a “pro-life” measure on the House floor.
Utah is the 40th state to adopt the measure. Advocates of SB 133 say providing health care coverage beyond two months after birth is crucial to ensuring potential long-term health impacts of pregnancy — from depression to high blood pressure — are treated.
Another bill, SB 192, sponsored by Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, would have covered doulas, who provide non-medical emotional and physical support for pregnant women, under Medicaid. There’s a growing body of research showing that doulas can improve birth outcomes and lower the rates of cesarean sections, but the legislation failed in the House.
Housing and development
Utah’s housing crisis demanded the attention of Capitol Hill again this year, and the imperative of lowering costs and helping new families stay in the Beehive State instead of moving away surfaced in House and Senate debates again and again.
In terms of sheer dollars, that came down to lawmakers backing a major share of Gov. Spencer Cox’s request for $150 million to encourage more affordable homes, building units for the unsheltered and support for first-time homebuyers. The main bills that bubbled up from the state’s standing Commission on Housing Affordability – HB364, HB406 and SB174 – were also poised to pass.
Those measures fortified a bunch of policy incentives, gap loans and other approaches to boost moderate and deeply affordable housing, especially in rural areas. One key example: A nonprofit agency known as the Utah Housing Corp. was on track to win a substantial hike in low-income housing tax credits it can dole out to help fund those projects.
But there were also more contentious rebalancing in the state’s prickly balance of powers with its cities and towns.
This touched on everything from tweaks to zoning around transit hubs to control over rules that homebuilders must follow. There were also more skirmishes over how cities can regulate short-term rentals in their midst. Private property interests drove one controversial bill giving private developers citylike powers to levy taxes and another limiting the power of residents to challenge zoning decisions at the polls.
Homelessness stayed on the Legislature’s radar with lawmakers approving a measure to force more counties to prepare for helping unsheltered Utahns in the coldest months.
HB499, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is backed by state homelessness czar Wayne Niederhauser and should have no problem getting the governor’s signature.
The bill would make several adjustments to the state’s homelessness response system and build on legislation passed last year that required leaders across Salt Lake County to create a shelter overflow plan for the winter.
HB499 would require earlier planning and establish a “code blue” response that allows shelters to expand capacity and privately operated buildings to legally serve as temporary shelters when the temperature falls to 15 degrees or lower.
It would also increase a state fund that was created to help cities offset the effects of hosting a homeless shelter, boost the share of the fund for cities that host a winter overflow shelter, and require cities with camping bans to enforce them to receive money from the fund.
Under the legislation, counties with a population of at least 175,000 would be required to plan a winter response for unsheltered residents starting in 2024. This provision would place new planning requirements on Utah, Davis, Weber and Washington counties.
The Legislature approved $5 million in ongoing grants for attainable housing and $12 million in ongoing spending dedicated for homeless services. Before the final gavel fell, lawmakers were expected to approve $50 million in one-time funding for deeply affordable housing.
Clean air, mining, making power
Water may be the state’s biggest concern, but several bills at the Legislature addressed environmental and energy issues in the state.
A bill that would have helped open a new limestone quarry in Parleys Canyon died without a committee hearing. HB527 would have prohibited counties from regulating mines proposed on lands associated with past mining or adjacent to land with an existing operation.
Critics said such a provision would hobble Utah counties’ ability to protect their citizens from mining impacts, while proponents said mine regulation is best left to state agencies.
Later in the session, Lawmakers did pass a bill mandating a program to monitor bromine emission from the US Magnesium plant in Tooele County.
Sponsored by Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Salt Lake City, HB220 was prompted by new scientific findings that bromine, one of 17 reactive elements known as halogens, plays a substantial role in the formation of particulate pollution during Salt Lake City’s wintertime inversions. It requires the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to produce emissions standards for regulating halogen emissions.
In a strictly party-line vote Wednesday, the Senate passed HB425, which, if signed by Cox, will require Intermountain Power Authority to give 180 days advance notice to the Legislature before shutting the plant down. As currently worded, however, the bill would do little to save the plant, which is to be replaced with a smaller unit powered by a mix of natural gas and hydrogen.
Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, co-sponsored HB425 in hopes of forestalling the early retirement of Utah’s largest power plant — the two coal-fired units operated by IPA outside Delta. The 1,900-megawatt plant is to be decommissioned in 2025, but Owens and other lawmakers want it to remain operable for future use.
Environmental, Social and Governance investing
Utah legislators joined other GOP-dominated states in drawing a bullseye on environmental, social and governance investing, but the bills would change little about how public money is invested and contracts are awarded in Utah.
After lawmakers put in requests for more than 35 anti-ESG bills, only four made it to legislation. Those bills included requirements to maximize revenue in state investments and require government contractors to pledge to not boycott fossil fuels and firearms. The contractors also can’t boycott companies that don’t have diversity, equity and inclusion goals. In general, Utah’s public funds are already invested to maximize returns, and the companies that contract with state entities aren’t boycotting any industries or companies.
One bill, HB281, outlaws the use of social credit scores that rate citizens on their civic responsibility. Such a system is said to be in use in China, but there is no social credit system in Utah, and there is no plan for such a system. That bill passed both houses.