SALT LAKE CITY — “Balancing” the executive branch’s and health departments’ emergency powers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Another attempt at a tax cut. Some stabs at equalizing school funding.
Those are some of the priorities Utah’s legislative leaders have in their crosshairs for the 2021 general session set to begin Tuesday. Other hot-button issues that will be keeping lawmakers busy include dozens of police reform bills and some gun bills that are sure to draw heat.
Also add to the list: mental health initiatives; affordable housing and homelessness legislation, including a bill to change the makeup of the state’s governing homeless body and create the position of a chief homeless officer; and a new approach to incentives for luring companies to Utah rather than just tax breaks.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, both laid out their top priorities in interviews with the Deseret News last week. Many of their priorities seem to align with Gov. Spencer Cox’s, though the legislative leaders left doors open to make tweaks to Cox’s first budget proposal unveiled ahead of the session.
‘Balancing’ emergency powers
Utah’s legislators have long been eyeing the governor’s and health departments’ powers amid a prolonged declared emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the pandemic stretched on, lawmakers frustrated with the scope of power granted to the executive branch in an emergency that would ultimately stay well beyond the rest of the year made early moves to rein in the governor’s declaration powers.
They started in April, passing a bill requiring the governor to give legislators 48-hour notice on emergency declarations. In that same session, HB3009 surfaced, which would have put elected officials’ orders above health department authority amid the pandemic, although that bill ended up not advancing. In August, they were reluctant to extend the governor’s COVID-19 emergency orders and encouraged then-Gov. Gary Herbert to review and reevaluate the more than 50 emergency orders he had issued at that time.
Wilson and Adams have said for months the issue would likely be considered in the 2021 session.
“When we put together emergency powers legislation many, many years ago, I don’t think people anticipated that emergency would go for a long period of time,” Adams said. “I think our Founding Fathers got it right when they said the legislature legislates and the executive branch executes. And when you give emergency powers in a broad sense for a long period of time, you basically take away that separation of powers.”
Adams said it’s “no question” that lawmakers will act on bills to address those concerns, though he didn’t offer specifics of what that legislation will entail.
Wilson, however, did say Friday he doesn’t foresee lawmakers making any changes to the state’s mask mandate.
“I don’t see us altering the expectation to wear masks as part of the health orders,” he said.
Some bills already in the works relate to executive spending power in the wake of controversy last year around multimillion-dollar contracts with tech companies for TestUtah initiatives while typical competitive bidding processes were suspended amid an emergency.
HB114, sponsored by Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, would place new restrictions on emergency spending powers, requiring the governor to provide notice to the Legislature within 24 hours after spending more than $1 million on one item, slashing that from $2 million. And Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, is sponsoring HB43, aiming to also rein in emergency procurement powers and limiting contracts executed during times of emergency to no longer than 60 days.
Other bills are likely to surface, including some to tweak local and state health department powers.
“We must evaluate, revise and clarify the roles and responsibilities of the executive branch, local and state health departments and the Legislature during times of crisis,” a booklet listing the House GOP’s caucus priorities states. “Doing so will allow each branch of government to act under appropriate authority and ensure an equal balance of power.”
Wilson said the aim of the discussion “is not to take power away” from the governor.
“It’s not to take power from one branch as much as it’s to give clarity and make sure people are doing their primary role,” Wilson said.
Cox said he’s involved in conversations with legislators on the issue.
“We continue to work with legislators to find the appropriate balance when it comes to emergency powers,” Cox said in a prepared statement on Friday.
After setting aside $80 million last year for a tax cut but ultimately holding on to the money as economic fears from the COVID-19 pandemic set in, lawmakers will look again this session to dole out the dollars back to Utahns.
Cox proposed that $80 million be returned to some Utahns in the form of a Social Security tax credit for low- and middle-income seniors, as well as an increase in the state’s existing tax credit for dependents to reverse some harms from federal tax law changes in recent years.
“2021 is the year of the tax cut,” Adams said, smiling, though it’s still not clear what it will look like.
Wilson and Adams said lawmakers may boost the $80 million goal for a tax cut.
“It could always be more,” Wilson said. “$80 million is a good number to start with ... We’ll see how the session goes.”
Wilson said lawmakers “haven’t determined what the tax cut ingredients will be yet,” though he added that “most conversations” have revolved around Social Security tax credits, perhaps for retired military members. He also said “a lot” of lawmakers like the idea of an income tax rate cut for all Utahns.
“But we’ll be negotiating that,” he said. “I think there’s a high degree of commitment for some tax relief to the state of Utah. We’ve set that money aside, so that’s out there.”
Wilson said his sense so far is that the tax cut will be composed of Social Security tax credits, military and dependent exemptions “in some form or fashion, but we’ll see.”
Education funding, equalization
Legislators made an early commitment to education when the Executive Appropriations Committee endorsed a plan to give K-12 teachers and school staff $1,500 and $1,000 bonuses, along with $140.5 million to fund a weighted-pupil increase of 6%. That 6% is slightly more than what Cox recommended at 5.82%.
Adams said with certainty that lawmakers will fund new student growth and that 6% weighted-pupil increase, as well as those teacher bonuses. The passage of Amendment G had a “disproportionate impact on education funding in a really positive way,” enabling legislators to fund growth and inflation for public education.
“I think you’ll see us stick to our guns” on education funding, Wilson said.
But lawmakers aren’t done discussing education funding — and their next task is a big one.
Cox recommended in his budget lawmakers reexamine school property taxes to “better enhance educational equity, so that education funding becomes more fair for both taxpayers and students in all ZIP codes.”
It’s an issue lawmakers have grappled with for years now. Their goal is so education money — largely funded by local property taxes based off of home values — is distributed fairly, regardless of whether a student lives in Park City or West Valley City.
It’s also an issue Adams and Wilson don’t expect to finalize this year.
“It’s probably going to take us a few years to resolve it,” Wilson said. “We’ve been working on it for years, and we’ll keep working on it with a renewed intensity.”
Police, guns, mental health
Among the top issues that has already attracted a slew of bills is police reform — though legislators have said not to expect any sweeping changes.
Though lawmakers are already filing dozens of bills to tackle certain reforms for police officers, Adams and Wilson did not list police reform as one of their top priorities. Instead, they sought to put more emphasis on efforts to address mental health, pointing to efforts to increase mobile outreach teams, emergency receiving centers for people experiencing mental health crises, and more.
“There’s always room for improvement in terms of our policy,” Wilson said. “But sometimes we need to make sure we’re digging at the roots, not hacking away at the leaves. So that’s our strategy this session.”
Wilson said his hope this year is that the focus of law enforcement legislation will be more around “how do we prevent these things from happening in the first place.”
Adams pointed to Davis County’s Behavioral Health Receiving Center opened as part of a pilot program, spearheaded by former Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross, who most recently joined Cox’s administration as executive director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
“That needs to be expanded,” Adams said, expressing concerns about the impact of COVID-19 and its isolation on Utahns. “I think it has been underfunded for a long time.”
However, Wilson did say the police reform bills that are likely to receive the most support deal with expanding de-escalation training, which is included in a bill filed by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City.
Additionally, expect fireworks around gun legislation this session.
Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, is furthering his bid to make Utah the next state to allow concealed carrying of firearms without a permit for Utahns over the age of 21 and legally able to possess a firearm.
Gov. Spencer Cox has signaled his support for a “constitutional carry” bill, and Wilson said it’s “pretty likely to pass this year.”
Additionally, Rep. Cory Maloy is renewing his firearm preemption legislation, which would clarify the Legislature has the ultimate authority over gun laws in the state. In particular, that bill would trump Salt Lake County’s efforts to close the gun show loophole. It’s staunchly opposed by county leaders including Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.
Wilson and Adams both highlighted economic development among their top priorities, saying projects including the state prison’s soon-to-be-former site at the Point of the Mountain will likely see big investments, as well as the Utah Inland Port Authority.
Wilson said the House also wants to see changes in how Utah attracts businesses, particularly with more of a focus on “the people of this state and not just the companies of the state.”
“The Legislature should optimize our economic strategy by reimagining Utah’s economic development incentives to support local businesses, help Utah entrepreneurs, bring regional and national headquarters to Utah, and encourage job creation in rural parts of our state,” the House’s priority document states.
Wilson said there will also likely be big investments on infrastructure — roads, rail, outdoor recreation, water and technology — including bringing fiber and broadband into rural areas. They also have their eye on Cox’s proposal for $350 million to double track FrontRunner, though they made no promises on that amount.
“You’ll probably see us do some bonding this year to help accelerate some projects that could be done sooner,” he said.
Wilson also said to expect some more investment in state parks and natural areas, which in COVID-19 times have been, in some cases, “loved to death” and are “bursting at the seams,” he said.
Affordable housing and homelessness is also on legislative leadership’s radar.
“We’ve got a housing crisis in this state,” Wilson said, as home prices continue to soar and availability has continued to be a challenge.
After years of advocates calling for more funding, House Republicans are now calling it an “issue that demands our immediate attention,” according to their priority booklet. Lawmakers have already filed bills to reduce regulations and allow accessory dwelling units, also known as mother-in-law apartments.
As for homelessness, expect a bill to essentially adopt recommendations laid out in a recent Kem C. Gardner Institute report calling to restructure the state’s homeless governing body to have a clearer chain of command with a lead chief officer.
“You’ll see a bill that adopts the recommendations,” Wilsons aid. “That will pave the way for a number of things. It will pave the way for, I think, more efficient execution and management of those facilities and will pave the way for our philanthropic community to feel more confident in that system and more comfortable contributing dollars into that system.”