SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers are considering ways to limit the governor’s power in an emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthening their own hand in declaring when an emergency is over.
The Utah Legislature is also in a brewing firestorm over transgender rights as it wraps up its fifth week of meetings that included the House passing a ban on transgender athletes competing in girls sports in the K-12 public school system.
SB195, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, stems from the power struggle that persisted between Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Last summer, lawmakers refused to extend Herbert’s pandemic emergency order, leading the governor to issue new emergency orders each time they expired in order to keep them in place.
Vickers’ bill would limit the duration of a public health order to 30 days. It would also only allow the Legislature to extend or terminate an order and would give lawmakers the power to end an emergency earlier than that 30-day time period. The bill would also ban restrictions on religious gatherings and prohibits a local health department from issuing a restriction without the approval of the county executive, such as the county mayor or commission.
“Utahns voiced concerns and lawmakers looked for ways to improve the process to ensure democracy is upheld, even in times of crisis,” Vickers, R-Cedar City, said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday.
But some, including a group that represents health care providers, aren’t supportive of SB195.
“We have concerns about the ability of an elected official to override the authority of a health department to make medically and scientifically based decisions in the best interest of public health,” Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Utah Academy of Family Physicians, told the Deseret News. “We are very concerned that this bill shifts the balance away from health-based decisions — especially during emergencies — to the whims of political influence too often swayed by special interests.”
The Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee gave its approval of the bill on Thursday.
Gov. Spencer Cox says he isn’t 100% on board with the bill, but he’s vague about what he wants changed.
“There have been lots of changes made at our request,” Cox told reporters during his monthly news conference with PBS Utah Thursday when asked about SB195.
“We will continue those negotiations, we’ll do those privately, and when the final version of that bill comes out, we will let you know whether we support it or not,” Cox said. “I think that’s the better way to negotiate these, and so we will continue to do that.”
Debates over transgender athletes and treating kids who want to transition
A bill to bar transgender girls from playing sports on girls teams at K-12 schools passed the House on Wednesday after a heated debate.
“Women’s sports matter in Utah. They matter to me, and they matter to every parent of young girls, and they matter to every young athlete trying their best,” said bill sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan.
HB302 would require public schools to designate athletic activities by sex and prohibit a student of the “male sex” from participating in athletic activities designated for female students.
Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, said passing the bill would hurt Utah economically as sporting events will be canceled and lawsuits will be filed.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said, “We can celebrate women’s sports and also not discriminate against transgender children. But it will require lawmakers who have the courage to slow down, bring people together and seek common sense solutions.”
The governor signaled that he is not satisfied with the bill.
“I’m not in a place yet where I’m comfortable with the bill as it stands right now,” Cox said. “Those discussions are ongoing. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Another bill on sexual identity that proposes a prohibition on doctors performing gender reassignment treatments on minors stalled in a House committee on Friday.
Under HB92, physicians and surgeons would be restricted from performing gender reassignment treatment on minors, including internal surgeries and facial feminization or masculinization surgeries. The bill would also prevent doctors from prescribing hormone therapy for minors who are considering transitioning.
Bill sponsor Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, introduced a new version of the bill Friday that would prohibit such treatments for children under age 16 instead of 18.
An opponent of the bill urged lawmakers not to interfere with doctors and parents.
“The crisis that’s being made here, I fail to grasp, because there is no real crisis. The bottom line is that politicians should not be stepping into a medical decision of parents and their doctors,” said Dr. Candice Metzler, executive director for Transgender Education Advocates of Utah.
Teaching consent in school sex ed courses
Child sex abuse survivor and acclaimed pianist Deondra Brown, of The 5 Browns, told the House Education Committee Wednesday that teaching the meaning of consent to Utah’s schoolchildren is a critical program that would have been “an important life lesson that would have served me well and saved me much pain later.”
“I share this with you today because I believe the issues we are discussing would have impacted my experiences as both a child abuse survivor and as an adult sexual assault survivor,” Brown said when testifying in support of HB177, where she revealed she was raped while attending the Julliard School.
HB177 is sponsored by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, would require consent to be part of the state’s sex education instruction and that students would be taught about consent in the seventh grade and again in the 11th grade. Under Utah law, parents must opt in for their children to participate in sex education instruction offered in public schools.
According to the bill, “consent means agreement to take an action or for an action to occur that is freely-given; informed; knowledgeable; and given by a person who is not legally prevented from consenting because of the person’s age or lack of capacity.”
The bill also calls for instruction in sexual violence behavior prevention and sexual assault resource strategies.
The bill was narrowly supported by the committee 6-5.
Lawmakers have $1.5 billion in extra money
Lawmakers have even more money on hand to spend this year, according to new revenue estimates announced Friday.
One-time revenue is up by $315 million and ongoing money is up by $112 million, meaning there’s now over $1.5 billion for lawmakers to appropriate during the final two weeks of the legislative session. That includes about $1.3 billion one-time and $205 million ongoing, according to the new estimates released by the governor’s office, the House and Senate on Friday.
“All and all, it’s a very good year for us,” House Budget Chairman Brad Last, R-Hurricane, told his fellow lawmakers on the House floor.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the new revenue estimates put Utah in an even better than expected position despite the pandemic — a position for which he said “a lot of states would be really happy to trade spots with us.”
But lawmakers are facing a horde of requests that far outweigh available money: nearly $2 billion for one-time projects and $400 million for ongoing proposals.
Legislative leaders have committed to some sort of tax relief this year while indicating an across-the-board income tax cut isn’t likely.
Targeted tax cuts are focused on senior citizens on Social Security, retired veterans and families with dependents who saw a tax increase with federal tax reform several years ago.
Infrastructure is also on legislative leaders’ radar as a big priority — a budget item that is more easily funded with one-time money. Much of that money could go to transportation and recreation projects, perhaps $350 million for double-tracking FrontRunner or maybe $50 million toward a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Lawmakers already made what they called “historic” early commitments toward education when they included a 6% weighted-pupil unit increase and $121 million for $1,500 teacher bonuses in the base budgets passed in the early days of the 2021 session. Those boosts to education totaled about $400 million.
Also included in those base budgets was a 3% raise to all state employees. The raise was cut last year amid fears of economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cox said he is cautiously optimistic about Utah’s economic position.
“There could still be some headwinds coming,” the governor warned, “but we feel really good about where Utah is right now.”
Sweeping bill to restructure homeless system gets committee OK
A House committee offered early support to a bill that would create a central leader on homelessness and make other sweeping changes after a study late last year identified several issues with the state’s homeless services system.
HB347 comes as Utah continues to grapple with issues regarding homelessness after implementing a new model in 2019, moving away from a large, centric shelter and focusing on smaller homeless resource centers.
The House Government Operations Committee advanced the bill to floor debate on Thursday.
HB347 as originally written called for the creation of a “deputy director” position to oversee homelessness issues. That was amended to create a governor-appointed “state homeless coordinator” position rather than a deputy director. The coordinator would then advise the governor on homelessness issues.
“The ultimate objective of this bill is to help people step out of homelessness and back into our community,” said bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who emphasized he does not want that leader to be called a “homeless czar.”
The bill would create the Office of Homeless Services within the Department of Workforce Services, which would be led by the state homeless coordinator. HB347 would also create the Utah Homelessness Council to include a member of the public with expertise in homelessness issues; state officials; a member of both the Utah House and Utah Senate; mayors of cities that host shelters; a religious leader; and someone who has been homeless and homeless service providers.
Prominent Utah philanthropist Pamela Atkinson praised homeless service providers for “keeping the system going and mitigating the virus” throughout the pandemic.
Lawmaker pushes for tougher penalties on rioters
Ken Dudley, who was shot by a demonstrator during a protest in Provo last summer, was one of dozens of people who went to Capitol Hill to support a bill they hoped would clamp down on rioters and send a message that the people of Utah would not tolerate destruction or violence.
Sen. David Hinkins’ SB138 seeks to toughen penalties on rioters while drawing a clearer distinction for when a protest crosses the line into a violent or destructive riot. It cleared its first legislative obstacle on Wednesday when the Senate committee voted 5-2 to endorse it. The full Senate gave its initial approval 22-1 on Friday. It needs one more vote in the Senate before moving to the House.
“Enough’s enough,” Hinkins, R-Orangeville, said, noting Utahns are “getting fed up with it” after watching protests escalate to property destruction and violence in places like Salt Lake City on May 30 and Cottonwood Heights in August.
Passage of Hinkins’ bill would mean accused rioters would lose their right to bail if charged with an offense during a riot “in which substantial property damage or bodily injury is sustained.” It would also change the jail time minimum from 90 days to 180 consecutive days for a first or second offense.
The bill would also indemnify a driver who “unintentionally causes injury or death” to a protester while the driver is “fleeing from a riot under a reasonable belief that fleeing is necessary to protect” the driver or passengers from “serious injury or death.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah urged lawmakers to oppose the bill. Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel with the group, expressed “grave concerns” ranging from “overly broad and vague” definitions in the bill, to an “incredibly problematic” provision that would specify intentionally blocking traffic as a felony.
Native American mascots in public schools
A resolution recognizing the harms of using Native American mascots in Utah public schools and encouraging their retirement was struck down by the Utah House of Representatives on Tuesday.
Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, urged her fellow lawmakers to support the nonbinding resolution, arguing that Native American mascots “often are disrespected.”
But Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, argued “there’s not a consensus” on the resolution among the Native American community. He said some appreciate their ancestral symbols being remembered.
Gun safety program in high schools gets OK
A proposal to offer teens a firearm safety course at school passed the House on Friday with a 47-21 vote.
HB258 would create a pilot program to provide a half-semester gun safety class for students in grades nine through 12.
“I think it’s important that our school kids have an opportunity to learn about firearm safety,” bill sponsor Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
The course would be part of physical education and carry a half-credit. It would be elective for students who want the training, with parents able to prohibit their kids from taking it, Shipp said. During the program, students could only use replica, nonoperating firearms at school.
Can money bring ‘Yellowstone’ back to Utah?
A bill that would more than double subsidies for films that shoot in the Beehive State sparked a passionate debate about the popular television series “Yellowstone” and whether the entertainment industry deserves special incentives.
SB167 would increase the maximum tax credit the Governor’s Office of Economic Development can award to a motion picture during a year from $6.7 million to $15 million. The bill would cost $8.2 million in ongoing funding from the education fund.
Bill sponsor Sen. Ronald Winterton, R-Roosevelt, told the Senate he looked into running the bill when the Paramount Network series starring Kevin Costner stopped filming in Utah last year and moved to Montana due to tax incentives.
“This is money that left our state and went to Montana,” Winterton said.
But not everyone was convinced.
Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, contended that the industry doesn’t bring that large of a return on investment into Utah’s economy.
“Why is this industry special enough that the taxpayers need to fund 20% of the industry’s operating expenses?” he asked.
A change in college presidency search
The House Education Committee voted unanimously Tuesday in support of HB318, which would do away with the current process of revealing the names of three finalists for the presidencies of Utah’s public colleges and universities.
The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake.
For much of the past two decades, Utah higher education officials announced the names of finalists for those positions and candidates visit the campus and meet with various constituencies. HB318 would require making public only the sole finalist’s name.
That practice is “problematic” for candidates because it places them in “a compromising position with the current status of their employment,” Ballard said.
Salt Lake media and First Amendment attorney Jeff Hunt described HB318 as “deeply troubling.” Candidates for other high-level public positions such as judges, school superintendents and city managers are all subject to public scrutiny, he said.
Lawmakers dispute state’s 2020 election void of fraud
Given the historic hurdle COVID-19 placed in front of 2020 voting officials, some legislators wanted to commemorate the election as a success in Utah, but some conservative lawmakers would only go so far in applying the word “success” to the results.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, sponsor of HCR11, wanted to “memorialize” the success of the 2020 election and the large voter turnout, as well as noting “there were no accounts or charges of significant election fraud” and the “security of the vote-by-mail process” in Utah.
But Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, countered when the resolution came to a vote: “I think that’s not entirely a settled matter in my district.”
No one on Tuesday challenged the fact that Utah’s county clerks deserved thanks. And legislators also agreed that the turnout of voters — 90% — was significant.
The resolution was stripped of references to fraud and mail-in vote security and passed the House, 43-28.
Does Utah need a state stone?
Utah has an official state cooking pot (Dutch oven), a state grass (Indian rice grass), a state firearm (the John M. Browning designed M1911 automatic) and state fish (the Bonneville cutthroat trout), so why not a state stone?
Rep. Christine Watkins’ HB188 to designate honeycomb calcite as the state cleared the Senate on Friday. It already passed the House 56-13 on Feb. 8. It now awaits the governor’s signature to become official.
Watkins, R-Price, said the stone is mined high in the mountains in Duchesne County, the only place in the world where it is found.
It is then finished and polished for use in jewelry and all manner of products, including for an entire bar at an establishment in Park City and for the beehive emblem on the first floor of the state Capitol.
Clarifying rules for BYU police
A bill to clarify state code for governing private police agencies in Utah like BYU’s police force cleared its first legislative hurdle on Wednesday.
Sen. Curt Bramble’s SB191 won unanimous approval from the Senate Business and Labor Committee after Bramble explained it was the product of work between the Utah Department of Safety, Brigham Young University and state officials.
SB191 came after an administrative law judge ruled in January in favor of BYU police’s motion to throw out the Utah Department of Public Safety’s decision to decertify the department.
The ruling concluded over two years of legal battles after it was discovered that a BYU police officer had accessed protected records that contained personal information about students and shared it with BYU’s Honor Code Office.
“This is exactly what we need going forward,” Anderson told lawmakers on the committee, explaining the bill helps clarify the process when a private police force like BYU’s faces an investigation and what needs to be done to accomplish “accountability” and “regain public trust.”
Contributing: Katie McKellar, Ashley Imlay, Hannah Petersen, Marjorie Cortez, Amy Joi O’Donoghue, Mitch Wilkinson