SALT LAKE CITY — After more than an hour of debate, the Utah House gave final approval Friday to a bill seen as giving the Legislature a role in deciding how quickly the state can begin rolling back the restrictions put into place to stop the spread of the deadly new coronavirus.
“We know that we cannot stay home and stay safe forever. We know that this virus is going to be with us for at least six to 24 months. We need to learn how to live with it,” the House sponsor of SB3004, House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said during the second day of the state’s first online special legislative session.
The state has been under Gov. Gary Herbert’s “stay home and stay safe directive for what seems like an eternity right now,” Schultz said, calling it an important step to keep Utahns safe that now needs to be replaced by a plan to reopen the state’s businesses, schools, churches and other institutions.
SB3004, passed Thursday by the Senate, was signed later Friday by the governor after being approved 59-15 in the House. The bill creates the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission to make recommendations starting no later than next Wednesday on easing business and other closures starting May 1.
The bill does not mandate the governor to comply with the recommendations, but requires him to detail why he didn’t. The 10-member commission is made up of appointees by the governor and legislative leaders, as well as the state Department of Health and the Utah Association of Counties.
Herbert named to the new commission Retired Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, recently appointed to lead the Utah Department of Health’s pandemic response; Brian Dunn, CEO of Steward Health Care; Dr. Michael Good, CEO of the University of Utah Health System; Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Derek Miller; and businessman Mark Bouchard.
“Members of Utah’s Legislature have been an important and involved part of the state of Utah’s response to COVID-19. This bill formalizes their role,” the governor said in a statement.
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, questioned on the House floor whether the bill goes far enough to exert the Legislature’s authority over what he terms the governor’s “sovereign, ultimate power.”
He asked if lawmakers “are conceding that the governor has the authority in this situation to do what it is he’s going to do and this body simply recommends, or is this an extension of the Legislature, and we have the ability to legislate and put these things in place?”
Lyman said not only is health important, so is “the Constitution, especially in times of crises. We have to go back to the Constitution. If we have the freedom to assemble, does the governor have the right to suspend that? I think that’s a legislative question.”
Schultz said under the law, the governor already has the authority to make decisions about dealing with the pandemic.
“This is an attempt to bring some legislative oversight into those decisions and make it more inclusive of other branches of government, mainly the legislative branch,” said the majority leader. “But ultimately, it does not take that responsibility of that decision-making away from the governor. He still has the ultimate responsibility.”
Some concerns were raised about whether the bill duplicates efforts already underway by Herbert, but Schultz said the legislation is intended to bring together the work already being done. Herbert and legislative leaders held a midday news conference about the governor’s “Utah Leads Together Plan.”
In response to a question at the news conference, the governor said this is a situation that calls for “all hands on deck, everybody (to) work together in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation. I can tell you, I get advice from the Legislature all the time.”
He said he does “expect a lot of the things we’ve already done will be replicated” by the new commission. But Herbert said he has “no problem” listening to their recommendations and invited anybody with suggestions to call his office.
Several House members said during the debate on the bill Utahns are anxious to see action on reopening the state.
Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, said he has heard from only a single constituent who wants the stay at home directive extended, while hundreds have contacted him about returning to work. He said he is “much more concerned” about the health of the economy himself at this point.
“We have, for good or for bad, for right or for wrong,” put in place measures in the state that have halted one of the nation’s most powerful economies and taken away personal liberties, Quinn said, adding it is time for Utah “to get moving again.”
Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, said he’s hearing the “overwhelming desire” to get things moving fast.
“I think it’s this way statewide, not just in rural areas,” he said. “A lot of these people are feeling like they’re suffocating, getting a little bit desperate.”
Senate President Stuart Adams, R- Layton, likened reopening the state’s economy to driving a car around a sharp turn.
“If you go too fast, you’ve got to let off the gas,” he said. State officials will have to balance business openings and keep a careful watch on data, and perhaps slow down if they realize they’re going too fast, he said.
Thursday, the Utah House passed a bill that even some Republicans decried as an “overreach” — one requiring the governor to give the Utah Legislature at least 48 hours notice before issuing certain emergency declarations. The bill, HB3005, was held in the Senate for negotiations with Herbert and his office.
The Senate continued to hold that bill Friday as those conversations continue. It’s expected to be addressed when the House and Senate returns for the virtual special session next week, scheduled for Thursday, according to Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.
“We’ll work with (the governor’s office) over the next week and plan to have that done,” Vickers told reporters.
- Final action was taken Friday by the House on bills shifting funds to the state’s current-year budget to account for the delay of some $840 million in anticipated revenues as a result of the federal government’s decision to move the income tax deadline from April 15 to July 15, Actual budget cuts that are anticipated will wait for a future session.
- Also, legislation now goes to the governor allowing the state to accept the $1.5 billion available in federal funds to deal with the impact of the deadly virus, including buying masks and other protective gear for health care providers.
- The House also unanimously gave final passage to SB3003, legislation authorizing the Department of Workforce Services to waive the one-week waiting period for an individual to receive unemployment benefits when a state of emergency has been declared by the U.S. president, the governor, or when the federal government agrees to pay the benefit. The bill will go to the governor for his signature.
- Also heading to the governor is SB3005, legislation waiving some statutory requirements hampered by school closures. The legislation would give schools the ability to acquire a waiver to excuse any student unable to complete the required civics test for high school graduation, and would waive teacher and school district employee evaluation requirements and assessment and accountability measures that the school board is unable to complete.
- The Senate also approved SB3006, a bill to provide $20 million one-time from federal COVID-19 relief funds for agricultural business loans, commercial rental assistance and residential housing assistance. The bill also includes $40 million for a commercial rental assistance program for qualifying small businesses. That bill will be considered in the House during next week’s session.
Adams said that bill was designed especially for people lawmakers fear are “falling through the cracks,” and seeks to give additional help to Utahns struggling with housing or food insecurity during the pandemic.
Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, supported the bill, noting data has shown COVID-19 disproportionately impacting people of color and in lower-income areas, including in her district in west-side Salt Lake City.
“Many of them are essential workers in grocery stores,” Escamilla said, noting they’re working so “many of us can stay home.”
- House and Senate lawmakers passed legislation to extend the state of emergency to May 18 for last month’s 5.7 magnitude earthquake that occurred near Magna. HJR302 would allow Utah to continue collecting FEMA dollars as assessments of damage continue and additional aftershocks occur. The current state of emergency ends Saturday and will extend upon the governor’s signature
Bill sponsor Rep. Sue Duckworth, D-Magna, said over 1,200 aftershocks have occurred in the days following the 5.7 quake, one of which registered a 4.2 on Thursday.
“As you know my little town here in Magna is a historical town. We’ve been here for quite some time and many of our buildings and homes here are quite a bit older than a lot of those in the valley,” she said, noting that if they don’t extend the state of emergency, they won’t be able to receive FEMA funds to address ongoing damages.
With the House’s passage, the legislation will head to the Senate for consideration.
- A bill that would expand liability protections to medical providers caring for COVID-19 patients, including providers who prescribe off-label or experimental drugs for treatment received final passage and is off to the governor. Some Democrat lawmakers expressed concerns about unknown experimental drug side effects, but ultimately concurred with SB3002 allowing the legislation to pass unanimously.