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Utah Legislature prioritizes mental health, affordable housing

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The House meets at the Capitol in Salt Lake City during the last night of the 2020 legislative session on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite what they said about a tight budget year, lawmakers signed off on big money for several social priorities this session, including a big funding boost for mental health and affordable housing. They also tackled several bills related to homelessness.

Lawmakers approved more than $23 million in ongoing and one-time money for a pair of bills seeking to expand and revamp Utah’s entire approach to mental health.

The bills’ sponsor, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said the financial commitment could kickstart a monumental shift in Utah’s response system for the mentally ill, and one that will have sweeping positive impacts on law enforcement, medical and homelessness systems.

Lawmakers approved more than $10.8 million ongoing and $5.9 million one-time for HB32, a bill to help build several new “crisis centers” up and down the Wasatch Front. Those 24-hour facilities would be where people experiencing mental health episodes in need of emergency care could go, rather than being sent to hospital emergency rooms or jail cells.

HB32 would also expand “mobile outreach teams,” or what Eliason called “mental health ambulances,” into rural parts of Utah. The teams could meet people experiencing crisis in their homes or on the streets for treatment, rather than relying on police for emergency response.

Lawmakers also approved nearly $6.3 million in ongoing money for HB35, a bill to open about 30 mothballed beds at the Utah State Hospital. The aim, Eliason said, is to free up beds currently occupied in the state’s prison and jail systems. Mentally-ill Utahns who would be better served at the state hospital in Provo have been stuck due to lack of space in Utah’s jail and prison system.

Additionally, after years of investing tens of millions in Utah’s homeless system but no new funding for affordable housing, Utah lawmakers showed their first new financial commitment to addressing Utah’s housing crunch.

Though Sen. Jake Anderegg, co-chairman of the state’s Commission on Housing Affordability, originally sought $35 million for affordable housing in his SB39, lawmakers approved $10 million in one-time funding.

After seeing no new money last year, housing advocates considered the commitment a big win for affordable housing, but intend to come back next year for further investment.

However, a bill seeking to prevent renters from being caught off guard from hidden fees and to stop “bad actor” landlords died in the Senate when the clock struck midnight Thursday. HB211 would have required landlords to disclose the full cost of rent and all fees to a potential renter before accepting an application fee or any other payment.

Lawmakers also considered several bills dealing with the finances and governance of the state’s homeless system.

Lawmakers approved HB440, which would set aside half of the sale of the Road Home’s downtown property, now owned by the state, to help pay off a roughly $17 million loan Salt Lake County issued to Shelter the Homeless, and the other half would go toward a fund to operate the shelters.

The Legislature also approved SB165, would would require local homeless coordinating committees to develop emergency response plans to prevent risk to health or safety of homeless. It comes after Salt Lake City opened an emergency overflow shelter following the closure of the Road Home’s downtown shelter, which led to fears homeless people would be left with nowhere to go in the dead of winter.

Another bill, HB394, which would have created a new governor-appointed homeless services director position to have the power and responsibility of coordinating all state homeless services and approving all state homeless funding distribution, died in the Senate on a 13-16 vote.

The bill faced a horde of opposition from homeless providers and state officials who were worried it gave too much power to one individual.