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The struggle of 2020 influenced this year’s legislative session. But is it the right move?

SHARE The struggle of 2020 influenced this year’s legislative session. But is it the right move?
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Members of the Senate meet during the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

I can’t get the image out of my mind of a Piute County commissioner comparing former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to Hitler.

That was in June. If you remember, Herbert had just approved requests from leaders in Summit and Salt Lake counties to impose mask mandates in public. Piute County, meanwhile, was on “green” status, the least restrictive. Nobody was required to wear a mask there; it was only suggested. 

That didn’t stop Commissioner Darin Bushman from issuing a long screed about personal freedoms.

In many ways, it kind of defined the great struggle of 2020, which was eerily similar to the great struggle of the 1918-20 flu pandemic, in which people in many parts of the United States reacted angrily to the idea of wearing masks — as if the Constitution expressly prohibited such a thing.

In 2020, they also were angry about restaurants and bars closing and, conversely for some, about stores staying open.

Bushman’s rant came months before a surge led Utahns through week after week of case counts in the thousands and burdensome, capacity-threatening hospitalization levels. Today, Utah lawmakers are ending an otherwise quiet annual session in which the struggle to assert power in a pandemic has become a theme, of sorts.

Or, perhaps, power itself is the theme.

Lawmakers started by trying to force the Salt Lake School District to resume in-person classes, floating a bill that has been held back as conditions, and the school district’s policies, changed. 

They entertained laws to let political parties, especially the Republican Party, have power over their nominating process. As I write this, the House has passed a bill that would assert power over all local gun lawsand even federal firearms regulations.

But the biggest thing was a pandemic-inspired bill, SB195 that gives them greater control over a governor’s emergency declaration that extends beyond 30 days. After that time, lawmakers would have sole power to extend the declaration. Thirty days later, they would have to appoint a large committee, including multiple lawmakers and health experts, that would involve public comments, to decide what comes next.

Think of the last time a committee solved an emergency. Go ahead. I’m waiting.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but this tug of war is not the result of a feeling Utah’s governors were not restrictive enough. It’s not built on the premise that we might have saved lives by requiring masks earlier.

Nor is it based on what the numbers today suggest, which is that Utah’s approach to COVID-19 was a failure. 

In fact, you will often hear the opposite, with arguments focusing on Utah’s comparatively low death rate per capita and low unemployment rate. However, the worldometers.info website, which compiles and analyzes COVID-19-related data, lists Utah with the nation’s fourth highest overall case rate per capita. 

The low death rate is likely due to the state’s relatively young and healthy population. The high case count rate — 115,795 per 1 million population as I write this — is the proper barometer.

That’s what led to a hospital crisis. It also left thousands of people with serious, lingering side effects, from heart problems to chronic respiratory ailments.

An early mask mandate might have stemmed this.

Utah’s struggle over emergency powers isn’t unique. From Kentucky to Idaho, state legislatures are working to limit governors’ emergency orders to 30 days. In most cases, this involves a legislature controlled by Republicans wresting power from a Democratic governor. In Utah and Idaho, both branches are controlled by Republicans. So far, Utah’s efforts seem to be bipartisan. The governor’s office hasn’t said much.

2020 may have been a unicorn. The next emergency that lasts longer than 30 days may be a major earthquake or perhaps a prolonged drought. Lawmakers need to be certain what they pass this year would be best under those circumstances, as well. As Kentucky state Sen. Morgan McGarvey recently told pewtrusts.org, “Do we really need the Legislature to come back into session to confirm the fact that it hasn’t rained?”

Maybe not. Then again, maybe lawmakers would want to review what a governor has been doing about it. 

Despite all the struggles and paranoia inherent in an election-year pandemic, the idea of reasonable checks and balances has merits. But those checks should be measured against real dangers and data.

In committee hearings and elsewhere, lawmakers have talked about the emails and phone calls they get from constituents who don’t like how the pandemic was handled. 

Opinion polls, meanwhile, suggest most Utahns have approved of how their governor(s) have handled the crisis, and they also wear masks. 

My fear, however, is that most people who call their lawmakers tend to sound more like that Piute County commissioner than someone who is too satisfied to pick up a phone.