SALT LAKE CITY — The question of whether the government — or even your boss — should be able to order you to take the COVID-19 vaccine sparked debate on Utah’s Capitol Hill as the Legislature nears the end of its 2021 session.

With one week to go, lawmakers have passed almost 200 bills and resolutions out of more than 700 filed. Of those, three involving nearly $100 million in targeted tax cuts focusing on families and retirees are advancing after legislative leaders detailed plans to help return to Utahns some of the surplus money the state is seeing.

One controversial bill that apparently will not advance would ban transgender athletes from competing in girls sports in Utah’s public schools. A Senate committee held the bill in a meeting late Wednesday.

But two hotly debated bills prohibiting mandatory vaccinations are moving forward.

SB208, sponsored by Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, initially would have banned businesses from requiring employees, prospective employees or blood relatives of employees or prospective employees to accept or decline any medical procedure. However, once it reached the Senate floor for discussion Friday, Kennedy had revised the bill to only prohibit employers from requiring vaccines after members of the public expressed concern the bill would affect drug testing and other workplace requirements.

Under the bill, the only employees who could be required to get vaccinations are those at health care facilities or those in positions within the health care industry in which they face a significant risk of exposure to bodily fluids or communicable disease.

Michelle McOmber, Utah Medical Association CEO, said during a committee meeting this week the group opposes the bill. 

“Individuals should have the ability to control their own health care, but we put limitations on individuals for the benefit of others,” McOmber said, pointing to restrictions from smoking indoors. In jobs where employees work in close quarters, like meatpacking businesses, “it is the right of the employer to require certain things.”

The Senate gave its initial approval 17-11 Friday and has one more vote there before it can move to the House.

Rep. Robert Spendlove’s HB308 would bar state and local government agencies from requiring employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations except for health workers who need the vaccine to work.

“The purpose of this bill is to find the right balance between public health and personal liberty,” Spendlove, R-Sandy, said on the House floor before the vote.

Although Spendlove said he hasn’t heard of “any specific ideas” that any government agencies would mandate the vaccine, his bill seeks to “proactively set those limitations on how far we as a state are willing to go.”

It won bipartisan approval from the House of Representatives on Monday and received a Senate committee recommendation Friday.

Gov. Spencer Cox last week said he’s “never been interested” in mandating vaccines and doesn’t think a mandate would be necessary given Utahns’ increasing acceptance of the vaccine.

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll released Sunday showed just 12% of Utahns insist they’re never getting vaccinated against COVID-19, The poll shows more than a third of Utahns say they want to get vaccinated as soon as possible, while another 25% say they’ve already gotten their shots.

Lia Smith, a registered nurse assistant, prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at the Mountain America Exposition Center in Sandy on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, where those 70 and older are receiving the vaccination. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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Nearly $100 million in tax cuts slated for veterans, seniors, families

Legislative leaders announced Monday a nearly $100 million package of tax relief bills.

The three bills would provide help for families with children, veterans and senior citizens, but not all Utahns, as legislative leaders have said an across-the-board income tax rate cut is unlikely this year.

“Today we want to try to put money ... back into the hands of Utahns that need it the most, especially Utah’s families, veterans and seniors,” Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said at a news conference at the Capitol to announce the tax cut package.

The bills are:

  • Sen. Lincoln Fillmore’s SB153, which would set aside nearly $55 million in ongoing money to restore the dependent exemption that was lost in federal tax changes in 2017 and caused a tax increase on many Utah families. SB153, which passed the Senate, would reduce taxes for over 388,400 taxpayers by an average of $140 a year, according to the bill’s fiscal note.
  • Sen. Wayne Harper’s SB11, which would use $23.8 million in ongoing money to eliminate income taxes for Utahns on military retirement pay. Fiscal analysts estimate SB11 would reduce the tax burden of nearly 18,100 people by an average of $1,315 a year. It has also passed the Senate already.
  • Rep. Walt Brooks’ HB86, which would use about $18.3 million in ongoing money to eliminate income tax on some Social Security income, targeting Utah senior citizens living on fixed incomes. Fiscal analysts estimate it would reduce taxes for about 63,220 Utahns by an estimated $280 a year. It passed the House earlier this month.
‘Year of the tax cut’: Utah legislators deciding how to use $80M set aside last year
Megan Neil gets daughter Charlotte ready for bed in their home in Vineyard on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

Anthony Neil, a father of three who with his wife, Megan, attended Monday’s news conference with legislative leaders, applauded the Legislature for “correcting a federal policy that has hurt families like ours.” Neil said his family is expected to see his state income tax decrease by about $200.

“(This bill) will be a boost for families such as my own and goes to the show the Legislature understands the effort that goes into raising kids and the importance of strong families to our economy,” Neil said.

Members of the public who want to speak in opposition to HB302 raise their hands during a House Education Committee meeting at the State Office Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. The bill would bar transgender athletes at public schools to participate in girls sports. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Ban on transgender athletes in girls sports stalls in Senate committee

A bill that would bar transgender athletes from competing on girls sports teams at public schools stalled in a Senate committee on Wednesday, bringing cheers from LGBTQ advocates.

Candice Metzler, executive director of the Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, called it a “reprieve” but noted the state still needs to continue conversations on the issue after the legislative session “so we can really find some solutions” to help transgender kids.

In a prepared statement after the hearing, bill sponsor Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said she was disappointed the bill did not advance but she trusts the legislative process.

“This is a complex and sensitive issue and I appreciate the robust discussions I had with a broad group of stakeholders, colleagues, and constituents, and I thank all those who voiced their opinions. I will continue to stand up and speak out for past, current and future female athletes fighting for the opportunity to compete fairly. I am optimistic we can continue to work together to create policies that preserve female sports,” Birkeland said.

HB302, titled Preserving Sports for Female Students, would require public schools to designate athletic activities by sex. As originally written, the bill would prohibit a student of the “male sex” from participating in athletic activities designated for female students.

The House passed the bill last week after two fiery debates among lawmakers, athletes and LGBTQ advocates. Those who support the bill have argued for a fair playing field for those born female, while others have said it will discriminate against transgender youth.

Birkeland introduced a new version of the bill on Wednesday that would allow transgender youth to play on girls teams except when competing with teams from other schools.

The committee ended the meeting without taking a vote on the bill, meaning it likely won’t make it to the Senate floor for a vote before the end of the session March 5.

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Massive $2.26B transportation proposal would be biggest in Utah’s history

House leaders unveiled on Thursday a massive, $2.26 billion spending plan for infrastructure — including $1.4 billion in bonding. But the plan could run into some trouble with some Senate leaders not keen on taking out that much debt.

House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, is sponsoring HB433, which would authorize the issuance of $1.4 billion in bonds for transportation and transit projects, plus nearly $823 million in one-time general fund revenues. Among the big-ticket items is $300 million to double-track certain sections of FrontRunner and $11 million for a bus rapid transit system in the Salt Lake Valley.

The House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee unanimously recommended the bill Friday and sent it to the House for consideration.

If the bill is approved in its current form, it would be the largest infrastructure spending package in the state’s history, Schultz told the Deseret News.

But Senate leaders have some misgivings.

“My gut is still queasy about our situation,” Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told reporters when asked about the spending plan, laid out in made publicly available Thursday.

Even though Utah revenues have fared better than expected amid the pandemic, Vickers expressed concerns COVID-19 could still have financial impacts on the future and questioned whether now is the right time to bond for that much money if Utah’s ongoing revenue could still be on shaky ground.

The governor also told reporters he isn’t fully on board with $1.4 billion in bonding, though he said his office is working with legislators to hone in on a smaller amount, perhaps $1 billion.

Dixie State University students urge Utah senators to hear a bill to change the university’s name during a rally by the front steps of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Senate will debate name change for Dixie State after all

Senate leaders announced they will debate a bill to start a name-change process for Dixie State University in an about-face after student protesters traveled from the southern part of the state to the Capitol in Salt Lake City to make their voices heard.

The Senate Education Committee will consider a revised version of HB278 that would require community input in the name change process, Adams told reporters Wednesday afternoon. Last week, the bill was stalled by a lawmaker in the Senate after House approval. A committee hearing date has not yet been set.

About 50 students carried signs urging lawmakers to vote on the bill Wednesday.

Members of the community who support keeping the name have alleged the decision to change the name took place without their input.

HB278 would require the university’s trustees, in consultation with the Utah Board of Higher Education, to select and recommend a new name for the four-year institution in St. George by November. Adams said that timeline likely won’t change.

Crowds gather around used weapons dealers at the South Towne Expo Center during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. | Ben Brewer, Deseret News

Lawmaker wants to assert state authority on gun rules over state, federal efforts

The House claimed dominion over all gun laws within Utah, voting to give the state power to override local laws and even disregard federal regulations.

HB76 creates the Firearms Preemption Enforcement Act and effectively gives the Legislature the final say on all gun laws in the state, prohibiting cities or counties from creating their own rules. It also states that Utah will not enforce certain federal firearm regulations.

“Any regulation, in the state of Utah, as it relates to firearms, is the prerogative of the state,” bill sponsor Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, told the House Judiciary Committee Monday. Maloy ran similar legislation, HB271, last year but it died in the Senate on the last day of the session.

HB76 passed the House 56-16 Tuesday.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, worries HB76 will remove protections that municipalities and counties have worked to enhance public safety.

He referred to Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson’s order last year that required background checks be performed with private firearm sales at gun shows held in county-owned convention centers, such as the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy.

Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, left, Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, and Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, discuss SB195 in the Senate Rules Room at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. The bill, sponsored by Vickers, stems from the power struggle that persisted between former Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, it would limit the duration of a public health order to 30 days. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Senate passes bill to restrict governor, health officials’ emergency powers

The Senate passed a bill that seeks to limit the governor’s emergency powers after frustration arose in the Legislature during the pandemic when health mandates were made without public input.

SB195 stems from the power struggle that persisted between then-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.

Utah legislators look to restrict governor, health officials’ emergency powers

Sponsored by Vickers, the 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.

Both Republican and Democratic legislative leaders have put their support behind the bill, saying Utah law never contemplated a long-term emergency like a pandemic and needs to better balance executive with legislative powers. Gov. Spencer Cox has said he’s negotiating with lawmakers on the bill.

Arundhati Oommen, a West High School student and student member of the Salt Lake City Board of Education, walks to a committee room to testify on HB338 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board races — if permitted by the local school board. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Proposal letting 16-, 17-year-olds vote in school board elections gets first OK

A bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board races — if permitted by their local school board — won the support a House committee on Wednesday.

The Utah Legislature’s House Political Subdivisions Committee voted 6-4 to forward the bill to the House for further consideration.

HB338, sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, creates a pathway for local school boards to allow teens ages 16 and 17 to vote in their board races. It does not set a statewide requirement but would allow each school board to decide if students can vote in their local races.

The bill was the brainchild of West High School student Arundhati Oommen, who serves on the Salt Lake City Board of Education as a student member.

Oommen said the bill gives students a say in local school board races while they are still in high school, a time when school board decisions impact many aspects of their education and lives.

But not all committee members were convinced HB338 was a wise approach.

Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, said he had concerns the bill could create a “balance-of-power struggle, or line-of-authority struggle” if students could vote for school board members who have direct authority over teachers and administrators.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, pauses to answer questions from reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. | J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Sen. Mitt Romney receives warm welcome from Democratic lawmakers

Republican U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney was given a warm reception in his virtual meeting with House Democrats on Tuesday, where he discussed his priorities in Washington, D.C.

“I just want to thank you for your integrity and your commitment to the U.S. Constitution,” Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, told Romney, who met with state lawmakers via webcam. “I think history will look very kindly on you, sir, and I’m proud to be a constituent.”

Romney chuckled as he said “maybe the history books will mention” his actions, “I think most of what I’ve done is a footnote in history if at all, but I appreciate that comment.”

“I hope history looks more kindly on me than many members of my own party,” he told Harrison.

Romney also met virtually with the Utah House GOP caucus as well as the Senate Democratic caucus on Tuesday, though those meetings were closed and not streamed online like House Democrats’ caucus meeting was on Facebook. Romney also visited with the Senate GOP caucus earlier this month.

After highlighting his proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour rather than $15, his proposal to send families with children monthly checks and other priorities, Romney also addressed “all the talk” happening in D.C. around the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

$75 million earmarked for state ‘bank’ to fund Utah Inland Port projects

House lawmakers, while putting final touches on the state budget, announced Friday $75 million would be set aside in a newly created state “bank” that could be used to fund loans for the port authority.

SB243 creates what House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, called “infrastructure banks” that could stash state money to be used as loans for future projects. The bill would also create a loan fund for the Point of the Mountain area, which is slated for massive development when the Utah State Prison is relocated, but Gibson said the $75 million set aside this year would be specifically for the Utah Inland Port Authority project areas.

“These are loans,” Gibson said. “They get repaid back. And there has to be a local match. And so those communities and counties that do that ... they’re also putting their own money into this.”

The Utah Inland Port Authority, created by the Legislature with a vision that it will maximize the state’s imports and exports, is meant to spur infrastructure expansion, particularly for railroads, trucks and translating facilities.

Health care workers conduct rapid COVID-19 tests at Kearns High School on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, as part of a state “Test to Stay” pilot. Just 11 students tested positive among 1,080 tests conducted. | Granite School District

Senate OKs testing to keep schools open when COVID-19 cases mount

Instead of shifting to online instruction when COVID-19 cases in Utah public schools mount beyond the established threshold, the Utah Department of Health would support schools’ use of “Test to Stay” protocols.

That’s the aim of SB107, passed by the Utah Senate Monday by a vote of 25-4.

The fourth substitute of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, calls on the Utah Department of Health to support school districts and charter schools that initiate wide scale COVID-19 testing for a “Test to Stay” protocol.

Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said district superintendents “are really the impetus for this bill. They want to keep their kids in school. They’re really really concerned that we have kids, particularly if you think about juniors and seniors who are nearing graduation, who really need that time in school to be able to get prepared to be prepared to be able to graduate.”

Even after dropping teaching of consent, House stops sex ed bill

A bill originally drafted to require information about consent be taught in school sex education courses failed in the House Friday, even though it had been amended to remove that part.

The House of Representatives voted 31-39 to defeat HB177.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, said in the process of running the legislation she had learned from higher education officials that one of the greatest challenges colleges face with freshmen is that they have little knowledge or understanding about consent. Regrettably, rates of sexual abuse and violence are on the upswing, she said.

The fourth substitute of the bill called on the Utah State Board of Education to establish curriculum requirements that include instruction on sexual violence behavior prevention and sexual assault resource strategies, meaning the tools students can use to get help if they are sexually assaulted.

The bill was also amended to include language that the curriculum would also include instruction on the “illegality of sexual activities with minors.”

Despite multiple changes to the bill, some representatives were still uneasy.

“I think this bill is headed in the wrong direction, something better left to professionals who understand the legal concept of consent, and to parents who better know their child,” said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville.

The parking lot at the Utah Department of Natural Resources in Salt Lake City is nearly empty on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Proposal would step up Utah’s game on teleworking during bad air days

Unhealthy air clogged with pollutants can be a barrier to good health, but it just could be the springboard for more flexibility among Utah government employees to work from home when pollution reaches extreme levels.

SB15 would set up a trigger for eligible workers to participate in a “surge telework” program when pollution is bad. The measure proposed by Sen. Daniel McKay, R-Riverton, unanimously passed the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Monday.

Supporters of the measure say the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year aptly illustrated during shutdowns what type of impact fewer vehicles on the road have on levels of air pollution coming from tailpipes.

A couple of studies have already looked at the correlating decrease in pollution as the state struggled with massive lockdowns to help stem the spread of the deadly virus.

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McKay’s bill directs the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget to coordinate with state agencies to identify those workers who may be eligible to participate in the “surge telework” program on bad air days or under other special circumstances, such as extreme weather delivering heavy snowfall or high wind.

Contributing: Katie McKellar, Ashley Imlay, Hannah Petersen, Marjorie Cortez, Amy Joi O’Donoghue, Mitch Wilkinson