Utah Legislature passed a record number of bills in 2024. Here’s how they’ll change your life.

The Legislature passed a $29 billion budget, targeted transgender Utahns, looked to ban books, and allocated billions in tax dollars to court major league sports.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Capitol is pictured during the legislative session on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. Lawmakers completed their 45-day marathon of lawmaking on Friday, March 1.

The 104 members of the Utah Legislature wrapped their annual 45-day session on Friday night. Before the gavel fell, they passed a record number of 591 bills, including facilitating nearly $2 billion to construct a pair of new sports arenas in the hopes of luring professional baseball and hockey teams to the Beehive State.

They kicked off the session in a rush to target diversity programs and joined a growing number of states passing anti-transgender legislation.

In between, they spent more than $29 billion on next year’s budget, cut taxes, addressed homelessness and tackled hundreds of other issues.

Tax cuts and school funding

Legislators spent $29.4 billion to set the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

They increased the state’s per-pupil spending, known as the Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU), by 5%, or about $202 million. Required by law to cover inflation, they had to raise the WPU by at least 3.8% — or $161 million — meaning $43 million of the total increase was discretionary spending.

Legislators also pumped another $40 million into the school voucher program, known as the Utah Fits All Scholarship. The additional funding almost doubles last year’s appropriation.

One budgetary move that was never in doubt was another round of tax cuts. Legislators dropped the income tax rate by 0.1 percentage point to 4.55% – about $170 million. Lawmakers put most of the money aside to pay for the cuts before the first day of the session.

Legislative leaders pointed to high inflation as a primary justification for passing the cuts.

“It makes a difference in people’s wallets and in their budgets. And especially as we’re seeing inflation. While it has slowed, it’s still higher than most people expected,” House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said on the final day of the session. “It’s affecting everyone. And so it’s important, I think, for us to recognize that it’s one of the biggest things I’ve heard about over the last couple of years for my constituents is the cost of goods and services and food continuing to rise.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, speaks at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2024.

Most of the money from the cuts will flow to the wealthiest Utahns. The top 1% of earners in the state will see nearly a quarter of the tax relief in the bill.

Gov. Spencer Cox told The Salt Lake Tribune that saying the cut was structured to benefit top earners is a “complete misnomer,” adding, “If you pay income tax, you get a tax break. Of course, if you pay more income tax, … you’re going to get more of a break than others.”

Lawmakers also expanded the state’s $1,000 per-child tax credit to include children up to five years old.

Attacks on transgender Utahns

Republican lawmakers came out of the gate again this year with a bill aimed at fundamentally changing how transgender people live in Utah. In the first two weeks of the session, lawmakers passed, and the governor signed, Rep. Kera Birkeland’s HB257, which changed the legal definitions of “female” and “male” to categorize Utahns by the reproductive organs of their birth.

Under those definitions, the law imposes criminal penalties for people using sex-designated locker rooms, showers or changing spaces in government buildings that don’t align with their assigned gender.

It also bars them from bathrooms in those buildings and requires schools to create a “privacy plan” for trans students to use restrooms separate from their peers. Impacted buildings include public schools and universities, some sports arenas, airports, courthouses, libraries and recreation centers.

Cox said in an interview with The Tribune that LGBTQ+ rights were coming up against rights of “women who feel uncomfortable in these spaces.”

“I hope … we’re reaching that stasis where we’ve figured out those balances and we can get back to working on other things that I think are far more important,” Cox said.

Debates around the bill were filled with misinformation. This is the third consecutive year the Legislature passed restrictions aimed at the trans community.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Messages in support of transgender rights cover a toilet bowl during a demostration by Utah Students Unite in opposition of HB257 on the steps of the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2024.

Ending diversity programs at universities

The conservative attack on diversity, equity and inclusion programs made its way to the Beehive State early in the 2024 session. After ducking questions about how they planned to address the issue before the session, lawmakers rushed to pass HB261. The bill — already signed by Gov. Spencer Cox — dismantles DEI offices and programs at Utah’s colleges and universities and in state and local governments. It also prohibits certain types of diversity training.

Lawmakers rejected a bill to block private businesses from requiring employees to embrace diversity and inclusion practices. Rep. Tim Jimenez, R-Tooele, claimed companies were forcing employees to agree with philosophies they support as a term of their employment but could not provide any examples of it happening.

An attempt to ban the display of Pride flags in schools died twice in the final week of the 2024 session.

HB303 from Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, prohibited teachers from displaying symbols, including Pride flags, that could be perceived as endorsing a political viewpoint. That bill was defeated on the House floor.

But with just hours to go during the marathon of lawmaking, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, gutted a bill dealing with school employees who are at the center of a criminal investigation and replaced it with language that specified which flags teachers are allowed to display in classrooms. McCay’s colleagues were uneasy about the maneuver to sneak in the ban on pride flags and voted down the bill.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, answer questions during a news conference on the final night of the Utah Legislature’s 2024 general session on Friday, March 1, 2024, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

Schools: More guns, fewer books, no chaplains

Aiming to protect students, lawmakers passed legislation encouraging more educators to carry guns with free “annual classroom response training.” HB119 establishes the “Educator Protection Program” and would require teachers to store firearms in “biometric” gun safes in their classrooms if they decide not to actively carry in the building.

Jimenez said teachers are already carrying firearms, so “why not provide them with the skills and the education they need in order to protect our children?”

Because teachers are already allowed to conceal carry, opposers of the bill — like Democratic Sen. Kathleen Riebe, an educator — said, “We’re really not solving a problem.”

And, during a House Education Committee, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, cut off from reading a few lines of a fantasy book during a hearing about banning books in schools.

“Does that not make the point,” Ivory asked.

HB29 allows for a single book to be removed from all Utah public schools if at least three school districts — or at two school districts and five charter schools — determine the book amounts to “objective sensitive material.” That includes anything considered pornographic or otherwise indecent material that does not have “literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors,” as currently outlined by Utah law.

Riebe, speaking against the bill, said she didn’t oppose it because she wants porn in classrooms but because the bill goes too far in preventing students from accessing materials on uncomfortable but real-life events such as rape or incest.

In the twilight of the session, the Utah Senate rejected a bill allowing local school districts to bring volunteer chaplains into schools. Individual school boards would have been responsible for setting the standards for the chaplains, while students and parents would have to opt in to receive spiritual care.

Some senators agreed that students are in need of more spirituality, but worried about leaving everything up to local school districts.

“If we open this door, we will have literally no control over who walks through it,” said Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan. “I think that we will come to really regret this bill if it passes when we see the results.”

The bill was narrowly defeated on a 12-16 vote.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, who announced his retirement after the 2024 legislative session, is recognized on the House floor during the final night of the general session on Friday, March 1, 2024, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.

Legislators also pushed through changes to social media regulations they approved last year in an attempt to prevent them from being knocked down by the courts. The pair of bills — SB194 and HB464 — no longer ban users under 18 from using large social media platforms without permission from a parent or guardian. Instead, they require strict guardrails about how those users interact with content, what data can be collected, and how it’s used.

Parents and minors can file a civil suit against those platforms if they experience mental issues that can be linked to their use of social media. Critics say the revamped bills are still likely unconstitutional.

Changes to reproductive health care

In 2023, the Legislature voted to prohibit abortion clinics in Utah in an attempt to circumvent a district court’s block on Utah’s abortion trigger law. Lawmakers rolled back that clinic ban this year — also on pause by a court order — hoping to expedite a ruling on the near-total abortion ban.

They also voted to include funding for controversial crisis pregnancy programs and wrapped an annual grant for such centers into a bill meant to address an adoption licensing policy shortfall that allowed an adoption agency owner who lost her license after “repeated and chronic violations” of state law to renew it and open another adoption agency.

Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla tried to pass a bill to expand Medicaid to cover doula services.

“I don’t see this as an expansion of Medicaid,” Escamilla told The Tribune in February. “To me, this is a way of reducing costs of Medicaid by using a health care provider that’s qualified to really change the process and the experience when it comes to maternal health before, during and after the birth of the baby.”

SB85, or Medicaid Doula Services, was a repeat of a similar bill that died in the House last year. Despite receiving a favorable vote in the Senate, the legislation was ultimately held in the chamber.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2024.

Major league investments in MLB and NHL

Utah’s big league dreams will get a boost of $2 billion in public financing for a pair of downtown sports stadiums in hopes of attracting a Major League Baseball team and National Hockey League franchise to the state.

Development of the new Fairpark and downtown revitalization districts will be subsidized by tax increases and, if teams commit to coming to Utah, a big investment in helping to build the new arenas. Bill sponsors said the state investment would bring billions of dollars more in economic growth.

After passage of the hockey bill Friday, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith issued a statement calling it “a great day for all Utahns and we look forward to continued collaboration toward our goal of creating an unrivaled experience in downtown Salt Lake City.”

No big changes to Utah’s election laws

Most of the pre-session bluster about making big changes to Utah’s elections went by the wayside.

A bill that would upend the state’s universal vote-by-mail system never made it off the launching pad. HB92 would have required voters to opt-in to receive their ballots in the mail. And an effort to make it harder to pass citizen-led ballot initiatives that raise taxes, raising the threshold at the ballot box from a simple majority to 60% stalled late in the session.

An attempt to kill a pilot program allowing cities to use ranked choice voting for municipal elections two years early failed on the Senate floor on the second-to-last day.

Another bill from Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, aimed to strip responsibility for overseeing elections from the lieutenant governor’s office, instead giving that authority to a newly created independent entity. Wilcox said he dropped the bill at the behest of Gov. Spencer Cox.

“I think there was a lot of thought that went into the way our election system has been set up,” Cox told The Tribune. “I think the idea of changing it quickly during a session does not make sense.”

That most of the elections-related bills failed or were never debated, Cox said, is “illustrative that [the elections process] isn’t a huge problem.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Pledge of Allegiance in the House Chamber of the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024.

Ignoring the federal government

Saber rattling against the federal government is nothing new from the GOP-dominated Legislature. This year, however, lawmakers took their anti-federal posturing a step further, passing a bill that sets up a process for the state to ignore federal laws and regulations they believe are unconstitutional.

SB57 from Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, allows the Legislature to pass a resolution declaring a federal action unconstitutional. State officials would be directed to ignore or not comply with the federal laws.

Making elected officials’ public calendars a secret

The same day a state judge ruled that Attorney General Sean Reyes’ official calendar is subject to open records law, lawmakers gave final passage to a bill enshrining elected officials and public employees to keep their calendars a secret.

It was one of a handful of bills passed this session undermining transparency. Others included legislation creating a new board to strategize about dams and pipelines and exempting it from open meetings and public records law; exempting all records about college athlete endorsement deals from open records law; and a bill to prevent the public from seeing records about issues that may be subject to litigation.

The governor signed the bill the same day his office received it. He told The Tribune, however, that his office will continue sending weekly emails with information about his calendar and hopes that other elected officials will continue to release theirs, as well.

“I would have been fine if they’d exempted me and the attorney general from that — they didn’t,” Cox said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lawmakers work late into the evening, on the last night of the legislature, on Friday, March 1, 2024.