Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has called the Utah Legislature into special session. Here’s what’s on the agenda
Redistricting, Biden’s vaccine mandate, Dixie State University name change and more
When the Utah Legislature convenes in a special session next week, lawmakers aren’t just going to be concluding Utah’s redistricting process — something that only happens every 10 years.
They’re also going to be addressing a slew of other big issues, from what could be the final chapter of Dixie State University’s contentious name change saga to tackling President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 workplace vaccine requirements.
Gov. Spencer Cox on Friday officially called the Utah Legislature into a special session, set to begin Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.
In the call, Cox outlined nine issues to be considered by lawmakers, including the redistricting process, a vote to change the name of Dixie State University, and an opportunity to consider “provisions related to COVID-19 and the workplace” — in other words, Biden’s vaccine mandate to businesses for employees to either get vaccinated or submit to testing.
In addition to redistricting, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a joint statement issued Friday that lawmakers will be “considering legislation to defend personal freedoms and individual choices and discussing other pertinent issues that deserve our immediate attention.”
Biden’s workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandate
Cox and Utah’s legislative leaders have been critical of Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine workplace requirements and had committed to fighting the new rules in any way they could, but had said they needed to wait until it was issued before determining next steps.
On Thursday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration officially issued the rule to require employers with 100 or more employees to ensure each of their workers is fully vaccinated or tests negative for the coronavirus at least once a week. The deadline for compliance is Jan. 4. If companies don’t comply, they could be fined nearly $14,000 per violation.
Utah joined four other states Friday in asking a federal appeals court in Texas to review Biden’s vaccination rules. Representing Utah in the lawsuit, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, a Republican, said the state is challenging the president’s mandate in order to protect Utahns from an “egregious and unprecedented” exercise of federal power.
While the lawsuit plays out in court, Adams told the Deseret News this week he wants the Utah Legislature to clarify that businesses must provide religious, medical or personal exemptions to the mandate. He said he’d also like to see an exemption included for “natural immunity” for Utahns who have already had COVID-19 and recovered.
Biden’s rules already do not apply to people who go to a workplace where others aren’t present, who work remotely from home or work exclusively outdoors. The rules also already include exemptions for workers with sincerely held religious beliefs, disabilities and those with medical conditions that do not allow them to get vaccinated.
But the Senate president said he wants Utah lawmakers to add extra clarity to federal rules. Expect to see legislation attempt to do that in Tuesday’s special session.
“I would like to, in a special session, make sure we use all the efforts we can as a state to allow those exemptions to be a part of the process,” Adams said.
Utah’s redistricting is coming to a vote
In next week’s special session, lawmakers will vote on a set of maps that will determine the boundaries of Utah’s political districts — all the way from school boards to the state Legislature to Congress — for the next decade.
The special session is scheduled just eight days after the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission presented to the separate body of Utah’s Legislative Redistricting Committee their proposed maps after spending hundreds of hours traveling the state to take Utahns’ input and live streaming their map drawing on YouTube.
But it’s expected the GOP-controlled Utah Legislative Redistricting committee will opt to bring their own set of maps to the Utah Legislature for consideration.
Even though the independent commission sought to draw maps in a fair, data-based process that was insulated from political bias, one of the Legislative Redistricting Committee’s chairmen earlier this week questioned whether the commission was actually unbiased when it drew its maps. He asserted “no one is immune” to political bias whenever “we put a line on a map.”
That’s after former Congressman Rob Bishop abruptly resigned from the independent redistricting commission, complaining the commission was unfairly weighted to favor urban over rural interest. Following Bishop’s resignation, House Speaker Brad Wilson suggested the Utah Legislature would possibly reevaluate the independent commission and its process altogether.
Dixie State University’s name change
After years of grappling with whether the St. George-based Dixie State University should change its name, which some perceive has racist connotations, Utah lawmakers had the chance to vote to change its name in the Legislature’s 2021 general session.
Instead, facing backlash by community members who view the Dixie name as reflective of southern Utah’s culture, where pioneers grew crops that were cultivated in the South such as cotton, lawmakers directed the Utah Board of Higher Education to recommend a new name.
Last month, the board did just that, and now the issue has landed again at lawmakers’ feet.
Earlier this year, HB278, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, sailed out of committee and passed in the House but stalled in the Senate amid concerns that the process had been rushed and the community had not had sufficient opportunity for input.
Now, after extending the public input process, it doesn’t appear anything else is standing in the way of the name change becoming official — unless enough Utah lawmakers oppose it.
Watch for a vote to play out in Tuesday’s special session.
Earlier this year — only four months after it took effect — Utah lawmakers rolled back a bill that had big implications for Utah’s bail system: HB206 required a judge to release people accused of low-level crimes using the least restrictive condition appropriate for their case.
The bail reform bill was seen by supporters as an effort to take income or wealth out of the equation when Utahns post bail to get out of jail, and rather base bail on a judge’s assessment of public risk.
However, soon after it was implemented, legislative leaders including House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, urged lawmakers to reverse the law, saying in the four short months since it had taken effect some of the worst offenders had been released from behind bars within hours. However, prosecutors and defense attorneys defended the bill, calling the repeal effort a “bad faith” proposal that would leave Utah vulnerable to costly legal challenges and would walk back progress that they argued made the state safer.
Lawmakers approved the repeal bill, which the governor signed, sending legislators back to the drawing board on what to do about Utah’s bail system in search of solutions.
Expect to see legislation to take another stab at that issue in next week’s special session.
That’s not all. Cox included several more issues in his call for Tuesday’s special session. Here’s the full agenda, according to Cox’s proclamation:
- Address redistricting and to divide the state into congressional, legislative and other districts pursuant to Utah Constitution Article IX, Section 1.
- To consider amendments to the statutes governing the State Flag Task Force.
- To consider changing the name of Dixie State University and to create a reporting requirement to the Legislature.
- To consider modifying the deadlines for filing a declaration of candidacy, holding a convention, and signature gathering and clarifying provisions of code that relate to the schedule for redistricting local school board districts.
- To consider making changes to the pretrial process on issues related to bail, pretrial release, and indigent defense.
- To consider modifying the Unemployment Insurance tax rate for calendar years 2022, 2023, and 2024.
- To consider provisions related to COVID-19 and the workplace.
- To consider amendments to the Interlocal Cooperation Act.
- To consider a resolution expressing the Legislature’s opinion about certain banking and financial transaction reporting requirements under consideration by Congress and the federal government.