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Legislature plugs $850 million pandemic budget gap in daylong session

As Utah lawmakers return to Capitol for special session, Senate leader stresses need to wear masks

SHARE Legislature plugs $850 million pandemic budget gap in daylong session

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, center, wears a mask as he attends a special session of the Legislature in the House of Representatives to deal with myriad COVID-19 budget changes at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 18, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature took action Thursday to plug an estimated $850 million state revenue shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but still found more money for education and social services programs before lawmakers wrapped up their fifth special session so far this year.

The House and Senate unanimously passed two bills, SB5001 and HB5012, that together, reduced the $20 billion state budget set to take effect July 1 to $19.2 billion while increasing spending in “high priority” areas — school funding as well as for Medicaid growth, mental health care, affordable housing and homelessness.

House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said lawmakers should be proud of their efforts, calling Utah “the shining star of our nation” compared to other states dealing with budget cuts in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak that are looking at slashing spending in some cases by more than 20%.

“I know that it’s been hard as we’ve received thousands of emails over the last few weeks,” Schultz said. “It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But certainly we are in a very good spot.”

The long list of budget cuts came after a series of hearings held late last month that largely rolled back spending to current-year levels, then by another 1.7% overall, and include eliminating construction projects such as a new state office building at the Capitol complex and a pay increase for state workers.

Public education, however, will see a 1.8% boost to the state funding mechanism for schools, known as the weighted pupil unit, plus $50 million to cover the cost of increased enrollment next year. Schools are also getting a significant share of federal relief funds, including $125 million to beef up broadband and digital broadcasting.

Schultz also sponsored HB5011, which commits the state to a $140.5 million WPU increase, to honor a deal made with the Utah Education Association last session for a 6% increase in exchange for support of a proposed constitutional amendment removing the earmark on income taxes for education that’s on the November ballot.

The bill, which passed despite some frustration that it surfaced late in the session, sets aside 10% of future revenue increases toward a goal Schultz said could take years to reach.

Lawmakers feared as much as $2 billion would have to be slashed from the budget, but new revenue estimates released this week shrank the revenue shortfall to $850 million. That news, combined with a sweep of budget reserves including $100 million of the state’s billion-dollar-plus rainy day funds, softened the blow.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters earlier in the daylong session that he doesn’t believe any other states are increasing spending for education and social services amid the pandemic.

“We’re able to do some things in a downturn that no other state is,” Adams said. “I think we’re pretty fortunate to be in Utah.”

Return to the Capitol

Many legislators returned to the Utah Capitol for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. While some chose to participate virtually via web camera, dozens of others attended in person, most wearing masks. On the House and Senate floors, only a handful of lawmakers — all Republicans — did not don face coverings.

The Senate president made a point of stressing the importance of wearing masks during a midday media availability. He announced recently he had tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies after being sick earlier this year during the regular 2020 legislative session.

“I may have immunity,” Adams said. “But even with immunity and not having the ability to pass on the COVID, I’m concerned that even though masks are hard, that we need to wear masks. We need to still show social distance. We need to do all the things that I think we’ve been told to help not spread the virus.”

As lawmakers mingled on the House floor before the session began, several could be spotted gathering together, fist bumping, or leaning over each other’s computer and generally ignoring social distancing rules. A majority wore masks throughout the day, though some would take them off their faces before speaking about a bill.

When House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, hit the gavel shortly after 9:30 a.m. to officially start the Legislature’s fifth special session, he welcomed lawmakers both in person and online.

“First of all, let me say how happy I am to not be the only lawmaker in this chamber,” Wilson said as he kicked off the House’s business. “It’s good to have my friends and frenemies back, and it’s good to have you back in the state Capitol where our Legislature belongs.”

The Capitol remained closed to the public, but members of the media were allowed to attend if they wore masks. The public could watch proceedings via the legislative website.

Gov. Gary Herbert issued the proclamation earlier this week to set Thursday’s agenda, including bills to handle how budgets for every aspect of state government and education are adjusted. With 26 bills, “this special session agenda is the longest in state history,” Wilson said.

“We have an incredible amount of work to do to get through these policy and budget items,” Wilson said.

Wilson welcomed lawmakers back to Capitol Hill, saying “none of us expected” they would be in a fifth special session to make “dramatic cuts” to the budget amid a pandemic.

“The reserves you have set aside for a rainy day that we are tapping into in significant ways are enabling us to also make investments in the future of our children’s education and actually increase funding for important social service and, in particular, mental health programs that the citizens of this state need, and need badly,” Wilson said.

But, Wilson warned, Utah is not “coming out of this budgeting process unscathed,” acknowledging there are many lawmakers who championed bills last general session that will now not be funded.

“But our constituents, Utahns, and especially those that are vulnerable in this state, are going to be well taken care of,” he said.

Wilson also called for the session to be about policy, not about politics. “We are all on the same team — team Utah. That needs to be more apparent today than any other day.”

Wilson noted there has been “a lot of frustration” across the state with “how this pandemic has been managed, for good and bad.”

“But today is about moving forward and trying to find ways to serve the citizens of this state the best as we can,” Wilson said.

Mandating COVID-19 tests for some

The Senate got started a little later Thursday morning and launched into a debate over SB5011, which allows the state to mandate testing for the novel coronavirus of residents and staff at long-term and other care facilities seen as at high risk. While individuals could refuse to be tested, they would face being discharged.

The bill, described by sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, as a best effort to deal with those facilities that are not now testing that could be revisited in a future special session if necessary, passed the Senate unanimously, but concerns were raised.

Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said what could happen to those who won’t be tested “looks like a really heavy hammer” and basically means those people are “booted out on the street. ... What it’s basically saying is, ‘You will comply.’”

For Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, the issue is whether someone who tested positive for COVID-19 at a care facility would be protected from being discharged. Sandall wanted to know if they could be “discriminated against for having the virus.”

Bramble said federal law already permits such facilities to discharge those deemed to be a risk to the health and safety of others there and asked, “Do they have the right to endanger everyone else in the facilities with that refusal?”

He said no one anticipates “wholesale discharges” and that the bill, which also requires state agencies to share data, is intended to help authorities identify COVID-19 hot spots, given that more than 40% of the state’s deaths from the virus occur in such facilities. The bill passed 56-19 in the House.

House and Senate lawmakers unanimously passed SB5006, which allows for a court order to force testing for someone seen as deliberately exposing public safety personnel to the virus. Criminal penalties for such actions have been removed from the bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City.

Mayne said some 400 officers have already been exposed and there “could be how many more, we don’t know. This is a tool law enforcement needs.”

Variety of issues surround pandemic

The session kicked off smoothly in the House and lawmakers swiftly passed HB5002 without dissent. The bill allows a public body to hold a meeting electronically without an “anchor location” if doing so would pose a substantial risk to the health and safety of those present like a pandemic or an earthquake. 

Sponsored by Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, it would require the public body to provide a way for others to hear, view and comment during the meeting. The bill later passed the Senate without debate.

Also passed unanimously in the House and Senate was HB5003, another COVID-19-related bill that lets a local school board use revenue from a capital levy for a school’s operational expenses for fiscal years starting July 2020 and July 2021.

Bill sponsor Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said the legislation is important because it will provide assistance to local school districts for the upcoming school year, allowing them greater flexibility to access funds for expenses like masks for students and protective equipment for teachers.

The House also engaged in a lengthy debate over HJR504, which extends Gov. Gary Herbert’s executive order declaring a state of emergency due to COVID-19 to Aug. 20. Herbert first issued the state of emergency on March 6 and the Legislature extended it to June 30.

Originally, the bill would have extended the date to July 31 despite Herbert requesting the date be set as Aug. 31. Legislators amended the legislation to Aug. 20 during debate.

While the bill ultimately passed 51-22, some lawmakers pushed back against it because they felt the bill might set a precedent of continuously extending states of emergency.

Lawmakers also passed HB5009, with the House voting 66-8 and the Senate unanimous.

The bill requires the governor to notify the Legislature within 24 hours of an expenditure or procurement during a pandemic disease emergency if the amount exceeds $2 million or uses federal funds that were granted for the purpose of providing financial assistance to individuals adversely impacted by the states of emergency.

If the bill is not vetoed, the law expires Dec. 31, 2021.

With HB5010, lawmakers created additional economic recovery programs in response to COVID-19, appropriating $62 million to the cause.

“We have businesses that have now been shut down for months,” said bill sponsor Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy. “There’s a real concern that many of these businesses may never be able to reopen, and even if they do reopen it will completely change the way they operate, it’ll completely change the interactions we have and with this kind of unprecedented impact it requires an unprecedented response.”

Spendlove said the legislation would use funds from the CARES Act to aid areas of the economy that are struggling and provide an “initial boost” to reeling businesses. He said 75% of the grant funds would be directed to small businesses.

The legislation passed 28-1 in the Senate and 64-11 in the House.

Just minutes before the session concluded, senators opted to hold HB5001, which deals with the security and storage of personal data related to COVID-19, to give them more time to deliberate the policy. Senators who pushed back on the legislation said the issue is complex and vowed to consider it again in the next special session.