SALT LAKE CITY — State senators rejected giving voters an extra week to return their by-mail ballots as lawmakers eventually approved several other changes to how Utahns will vote in the November election during Thursday’s special session of the Utah Legislature.
SB6007, most-debated topic of the day at this year’s sixth special session, awaits action from Gov. Gary Herbert, along with a long list of other mostly COVID-19-related legislation that passed.
“With the national debate regarding the post office and potential cutbacks in service, I think the extra week will provide comfort to voters, election officials, voter advocacy groups, candidates,” Senate Minority Assistant Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, said in calling for ballots to go out 28 days, rather than 21 days, before the election.
Iwamoto said the additional time is supported by county clerks throughout Utah.
But Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, and other Republican senators said while the issue is worth talking about, the discussion should wait until the 2021 Legislature. Iwamoto’s proposed amendment to SB6007, the bill detailing how the November election will be conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, failed.
Anderegg said because most campaigns already have plotted their advertising and get-out-the-vote strategies through Election Day, “moving the goal posts midstream, right now, is a bad idea. It’s going to favor some over others.”
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the bill’s sponsor, said he’d been assured the current time frame for voting would be fine.
The bill also restores some in-person voting options that were suspended for the state’s June 30 primary due to the health crisis and penalizes what’s known as “ballot harvesting,” or collecting ballots from others. The changes in the bill — except for those related to ballot harvesting — are only for the November election.
In the House, Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, sought to amend the bill to allow mail-in ballots to be postmarked on Election Day, just as in the June primary, instead of returning back to the regular deadline of the day before the election.
Arent worried switching deadlines in the middle of the election cycle would cause unnecessary confusion and result in some ballots not being counted.
“Election Day should be Election Day for everyone,” she said.
But Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton and the floor sponsor, said each county in the state is required to allow in-person voting — in contrast to the June primary in which no in-person voting was allowed.
“We have not seen a need for postmarking on that day,” Handy said.
Arent’s amendment failed and the House gave unanimous approval to the bill.
The bill no longer includes a provision that would have given Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the Republican candidate for governor whose office oversees elections, the authority to declare a health emergency and suspend in-person voting not conducted outdoors.
Harper said Cox’s office “didn’t feel comfortable with that authority” and instead would work with each county to limit voting to safer options in the event of a resurgence of the virus.
While Utah is among the most Republican states in the country, it is also one of just five that have been using universal by-mail voting, a system that has been slammed by President Donald Trump. As more states shift to voting by mail this fall for health reasons, U.S. Post Office resources have been cut back by the administration.
Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, told reporters later that the post office is being treated unfairly but will be able to handle vote-by-mail elections this presidential election year, based on Utah’s success over a number of years.
“I think it’s shameful that the Postal Service has been put in this light for all kinds of political manipulations,” Mayne said when asked what her message to the president would be. “I think nationally, things have gone awry for the Postal Service.”
Lawmakers called into action yet again
The special session got underway earlier in the day with House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, noting the extraordinary challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic already have forced lawmakers to redo the state budget multiple times and pass a flurry of new bills.
But despite these frequent meetings, Wilson said House lawmakers are not going to be transformed into a full-time Legislature.
“We are citizens first and lawmakers second,” he said.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters that it feels like “we’ve been here here all year long.”
Lawmakers signed off on a measure that continues relief programs funded by the federal government to help states combat the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. SB6009 allocates $20 million to the state’s version of the Paycheck Protection Program and provides $7.5 million for job training.
Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, the bill’s sponsor, said Utah’s efforts include a program aimed at keeping renters from being evicted through the end of the year by now allowing anyone suffering a “negative impact” to seek assistance, and giving them 30 rather than three days to settle overdue rent.
In yet another adjustment to the state budget, lawmakers passed HB6002, which loosens up additional money for health clinics, legal defense and other areas hit hard by the coronavirus. It also allocates $150 million in federal relief funds, including $25 million to state parks that have seen increased visitation.
“This bill is the next step in our plan for managing the state budget,” said House Budget Chairman Brad Last, R-Hurricane, sponsor of the budget bill.
It includes an additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits for out-of-work Utahns, $15 million for new equipment and night shifts to speed up virus testing and additional money for more intensive care beds, $5 million for the oil, gas and mining industry and $40 million for state relief efforts.
Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said lawmakers should be proud of how they’ve handled the revenue decline that forced the state’s $20 billion budget to be cut by some $800 million earlier this summer.
“We don’t do crisis well — we manage it,” Stevenson said.
Also approved was SB6005, which prevents the state from taxing PPP benefits or any other federal money that has gone to help Utah families and businesses, including the $1,200 checks sent out from Washington earlier this year.
“COVID-19 has impacted everyone in our state,” Harper, the sponsor of the measure, said. “As state leaders, we want to ensure that Utahns and Utah businesses keep the rebates and grant funds to utilize for their specific situations, without the concern of taxation. Prohibiting all state income tax on COVID-19 funds and individual federal rebate checks provides Utahns with more resources during these challenging times.”
Other bills approved made smaller changes
HB6001, from Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, allows wills to be drafted and executed online provided there are two witnesses. Snow said the bill is especially critical given the health threats posed by the coronavirus.
The impact of the novel coronavirus on schools was also on the agenda. HB6004, sponsored by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, allows schools to forgo mandatory evacuation drills given the crowding that would result and easily passed.
Moss said to have as many as 3,000 students clustered together would undercut any precautions schools are taking to prevent the spread of the virus. Schools are not forbidden from doing the drills but are allowed to take a pass under her measure. The bill would allow schools to forgo the drills into next February, when the situation could be revisited.
Also in the education arena, both the House and Senate approved HB6012, sponsored by Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, which authorizes the State Board of Education to conduct a headcount earlier in the school to assess enrollment impacts due to coronavirus.
“This allows them to do an early snapshot in September,” Moss said, adding that it also provides greater flexibility to parents when it comes to charter school options.
A bill easing the way for a new executive director of the Utah Department of Health, SB6006, also was approved, although some concerns were raised about easing the job requirements. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, said state law already does not mandate the person filling the post be a physician.
Only one bill, SB6008, dealing with vaping shops and sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, ran into any trouble during the daylong session.
After passing the Senate, the bill was voted down in the House, but then recalled and passed after House sponsor, Rep. John Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, explained that it cleaned up language that made it impossible for the state to live up to its arrangement with those retailers on deadlines to relocate from near schools or liquify their business.
“This strengthens our position in a potential lawsuit,” he said.
No longer on the special session agenda was modifying or extending Gov. Gary Herbert’s emergency orders on COVID-19, including a requirement that masks be worn in state facilities, after the Legislature’s GOP leadership was unable to muster a veto-proof majority.
Herbert extended the state’s emergency order related to the health crisis that expired at midnight Thursday. The issue of the governor’s powers in a pandemic is expected to continue to be discussed, with action likely in the 2021 Legislature.