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Opinion: What to expect as the Utah Legislature holds yet another pandemic regular session

COVID-19, from government restrictions to spending federal relief dollars, will be front and center, as will be a large surplus

Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant gives the annual State of the Courts address via Zoom to members of the Utah House of Representatives.
Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant gives the annual State of the Courts address via Zoom to members of the Utah House of Representatives on the first day of the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session in Salt Lake City.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Hold onto your wallets and avert the children’s eyes. The 2022 general session of the Utah State Legislature convenes on Tuesday. Once again, it will occur amid a raging pandemic. We explore both of these important events and how they may affect each other.

State and local officials are receiving pressure to impose vaccine mandates, school closures and mask requirements to slow the omicron variant infection rate. How will the Legislature respond, and will the virus impact legislative deliberations?

Pignanelli: “Remote learning has been a disaster for America’s kids. We must acknowledge that, and do everything to minimize any further remote learning.” Dr. Ashish K. Jha, Dean, Brown University School of Public Health.

The weird repeat of a legislative session during a viral pandemic is best explained by the astute observation of that great Italian philosopher Yogi Berra“It’s déjà vu all over again”. As with last year, the Legislature will be open for business while providing excellent accommodations for lawmakers and citizens to participate remotely. Also, expenditures of pandemic relief federal dollars will be another continuing element.

But a year makes all the difference — which will be highlighted during the session. Public education will enjoy increased funding, but not without intense discussion, and potential legislation, regarding school closures. The results of this year’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, along with protests at school board meetings throughout the nation, demonstrate that Americans and Utahns across the political spectrum want children at school, not at home. These emotions will be reflected during the session.

The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to rule on the federal mandates for employee vaccinations. The results will generate potential tweaks to the laws passed in special session last year.

The pandemic and legislative session share another element, a common desire for conclusion. Yet, as again best described by Hall of Famer Berra, “It’s not over until it’s over”.

Webb: We’re fighting a new battle with the onset of the omicron variant. And federal, state and local governments were not prepared for it. It’s clear now that we can’t totally eliminate COVID-19. So we must learn how to live with it and minimize its impacts — while keeping schools and businesses open and avoiding onerous mandates.

Lawmakers ought to be focused on dramatically ramping up testing, therapeutics that fight the symptoms and prevent serious illness, and bolstering the health care system so it can handle more infections and more patients. It’s clear we need more doctors, more nurses, more hospital beds. It’s a matter of supply and demand. We need more supply to meet demand.

I recognize we can’t boost the capacity of our health care system by 20% overnight. But if COVID-19 is here to stay, we need another Operation Warp Speed to get moving. That ought to be a focus of the Legislature and Governor’s Office.

What will be other major issues addressed in this legislative session?

Pignanelli: In addition to the plethora of federal dollars, state revenues are at a major surplus. But legislative leaders are articulating a deep concern the extra receipts may not be available in the near future because the economy could constrict from its current sugar high. This analysis will dominate the appropriations process, as ongoing spending commitments are limited. Such wise scrutiny explains why our state is so well-managed.

The mild winter and hot summer of 2021 undeniably illustrated that future growth and water needs must be confronted. To the credit of the governor and legislative leadership, these matters (including the Great Salt Lake) will be a priority.

Webb: It’s tough to spend a big, fat state surplus and dump truck loads of federal money. But somebody’s gotta step up and do it, and Utah’s 104 lawmakers will enjoy doling out all that cash. They will deal with rapid growth: Water conservation and development, air quality, transportation investment and education funding. They will debate ways to save the Great Salt Lake from drying up. They will consider tax cuts and a host of lesser issues.

They must be wise and frugal, because the federal money is going to dry up and our great economy won’t last forever. Don’t imperil the future by granting too large a tax cut.

Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County are led by Democratic mayors and the population tends to be more left-of-center than the rest of the state. Will the Legislature allow these local governments, and others, to establish their own COVID-19 policies?

Pignanelli: Any such discussions will be focused on further restricting, not expanding, local government power to impose mandates.

Webb: Personally, I don’t support more pandemic government mandates. We’re done with mandates. But because I believe in local control, rather than dictates from above, I don’t believe the Legislature should prevent these local governments from taking whatever action they deem proper. Let them make their policies and face their voters.

I do believe we all should use common sense. That means voluntary vaccinations and face masks as appropriate. No shutting down schools or businesses.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.