SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox says he won’t veto a bill lifting the statewide mask mandate April 10.
The Senate on Friday night passed HB294 setting the timetable to lift COVID-19 restrictions, but amended the House-approved measure to end the statewide mask mandate by April 10 except for groups of over 50 where people cannot social distance. The House agreed, giving the bill final approval and sending it to the governor for him to sign or veto.
“We worked really hard to get that bill across the finish line,” Cox told reporters Friday night, expressing confidence that by that April 10 date most vulnerable Utahns will be vaccinated. “Look, every day we’re vaccinating upward of 25,000 people.”
The legislation is among the 503 bills and resolutions passed in the 2021 Legislature, which is mandated to end by midnight, but the House adjourned just after 10:30 p.m. and the Senate followed soon after.
HB294 declares Utah’s pandemic restrictions over either when the state hits a list of benchmarks or July 1, whichever comes first.
For a lifting of other restrictions — except for mask mandates in K-12 schools until July 1 — the measures listed in the bill include if the state reaches a 14-day COVID-19 case rate less than 191 per 100,000 people, when the statewide seven-day average of COVID-19 ICU bed utilization is less than 15%, and when the state has been allocated 1.63 million first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Cox specifically pointed to the provision in the bill requiring mask mandates for large groups.
“That’s really important,” he said. “So we feel much better with where the bill is today.”
The governor also noted that if Utah’s declining COVID-19 cases rise again, lawmakers could always come back into a special session and enact new restrictions.
“The Legislature owns this now,” Cox said. “And so that comes with that responsibility.”
The Senate sponsor of the bill was glad to have the April date.
“With this bill I’m happy to say we can go back and tell our constituents we have identified and we now know what it looks like when the numbers and the data tell us when we can change (back to normal),” said Senate sponsor Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green.
“It winds us down,” he said, calling it an “amazing thing” that would spell out exactly when the state would be able to “safely” transition back to normal. He said it was negotiated in consultation with both Gov. Spencer Cox’s team and the Utah Department of Health.
But when the bill returned to the House for final approval of the amendment, concerns were raised.
“As a medical doctor and one of the few people with medical expertise in this body, I think we need a little bit of humility as legislators that we don’t know everything, that we have medical experts that have been consulting with our public officials, and we’re doing a lot of things right,” said Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy.
Harrison noted one of their fellow lawmakers, Rep. Jon Hawkins, “nearly died of this disease ... And all of us have lost friends or loved ones to this awful disease.”
“The science is irrefutable. It has saved lives. It is helping us head in the right direction. And I think this type of prescriptive language is unnecessary to legislate. We’re heading in the right direction. We shouldn’t celebrate victory before the race is won... Let’s finish strong,” said Harrison.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said that if there is another outbreak, county commissioners can put mask mandates back in place through a vote.
“(Gov. Spencer Cox) wanted to go into May, but even going into April gives them time to actually get shots in the arms. That actually helps increase our herd immunity so that there’s less likely to have a re-outbreak,” he said.
When asked about herd immunity, Ray said the governor’s office did not have a specific percentage in mind because it is a moving target. He then criticized the CDC, which he said he thought stood for “can’t do crap,” for changing the herd immunity requirements because “they want to encourage people to get the vaccines.”
Among the bills debated today:
Lawmakers put ‘capstone’ on state’s $23 billion budget
Utah lawmakers quickly voted Friday night to approve SB3, the “bill of bills” to finalize the state’s $23.5 billion budget — what Senate Budget Chairman Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, called probably “the largest bill of bills” he’s ever seen.
SB3 puts what Stevenson called a “capstone” on the state’s budget, which funded ongoing operations with the help of more than $1.5 billion in extra revenue lawmakers had to spend this year. The bill funds a $1.2 billion package of one-time money and bonding to fund infrastructure, $100 million in tax cuts for some Utahns, $50 million for affordable housing and homelessness, and over $400 million for education.
Stevenson recalled how almost exactly a year ago, the Utah lawmakers had just finalized the budget before it dawned on them COVID-19 had changed everything.
“When we stepped out of here a year ago, we faced a pandemic and a very unknown future,” Stevenson said. “We had no idea what was going to take place.”
Lawmakers then slashed the budget, bracing for economic impacts of the budget. But fast forward a year later, with better-than-expected revenues despite the pandemic, Stevenson said lawmakers were able to restore those defunded items and do so much more.
“As someone who has been involved in this since early in the session ... and the session before that and the session before that, I am extremely pleased with the balanced budget that we’ve produced.”
Mixed bag for some of the police reform bills
A bill that would place a time limit on police use-of-force investigations failed in the Senate. HB154 floor sponsor Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill “does two major things,” including mapping out a process for making information public on a county or district attorney’s website.
It also clarifies that an officer should identify themselves as a peace officer and “give a clear oral warning of his or her intent to use a firearm or other physical force.”
Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, questioned whether officers should face more requirements when faced with critical decisions.
“In those moments, those intense moments where a police officer is called upon to possibly use deadly force, I don’t want them to be obligated in the back of their mind to think, ‘Did I identify myself?’” Sandall said.
The bill failed 15-13.
The Senate did, however, pass a bill that seeks to prevent “suicide by cop.” The bill’s floor sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said HB237 would clarify in training requirements that when someone is threatening suicide, an officer should try to use “strategic withdrawal” rather than engagement.
After some lawmakers expressed concern about the bill, Vickers acknowledged their concerns but emphasized that law enforcement agencies support it.
The bill passed 16-11.
The Senate also passed HB264, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, which would require a law enforcement officer to file a report after pointing a firearm or a conductive energy device at a person. The bill passed 20-7.
Note to feds: Hands off local police reform
The House voted unanimously to pass SJR13, a resolution sending a message to President Joe Biden and the federal government that states shape their own criminal justice reform policy.
The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, called it a message bill that was worth approving, especially in a year where the U.S. faced calls to “defund the police” in wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The resolution urges the federal government to “respect state criminal justice priorities and advance change through partnerships rather than mandates.” Wilcox said the resolution wasn’t aimed at any specific political party, but decried any encroachment from the federal government on shaping police reform policy.
“When we have a federal partner that is bent on enforcing their will through Department of Justice grants demanding we change our policy to (access) assistance from federal partners, we don’t have partners acting in good faith,” Wilcox said.
Right after the House voted 72-0, with Democrats joining the vote, the House honored about a dozen Utah Highway Patrol troopers with a standing ovation.
“We appreciate this year in particular we’ve asked more of you,” Wilcox said, referring to increased security at the Capitol in Salt Lake City after the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. “We know that we’ve asked more of you. ... We appreciate you choosing to be here to protect this building and to watch out for each one of us that work here.”
Dinosaur skull takes a spot at the dais to mark park creation
A Utahraptor skull sat on the House speaker’s dais Friday afternoon as lawmakers went on passing bills.
It was placed there to celebrate lawmakers’ decision this year to fund the creation of Utahraptor State Park in the Dalton Wells area in Grand County after the park was defunded last year amid budget cuts ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers also funded the creation of Lost Creek State Park, renamed from Lost Creek Reservoir in Morgan County. The cost of both parks totaled $36.5 million.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who has for years pushed the creation of Utahraptor State Park, said the skull was pulled out of the Dalton Wells area. Eliason also said two models of the Utahraptor sat in a back room accessible to lawmakers.
“Interestingly, you’ll notice they are both broken if you look closely,” Eliason said, adding they were “shaken off the shelf” during the 5.9 magnitude earthquake last March, “and they’re still in the process of being repaired.”
No school report cards this academic year
The Senate gave final passage Friday to SB184, which lifts the requirement that the Utah State Board of Education publish school-level report cards for the current school year. Sponsored by Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, the bill also pauses the requirement that the State School Board identify Utah’s worst-performing public schools for the state turnaround program. The program provides additional resources for three years to help struggling schools improve their performance.
While schools may test their students and the state can collect the data, the results will not be published.
“The reality is that our students are experiencing a wide range of impacts from COVID-19 based on circumstances, income levels, access to health care, food security, race, ethnicity, and the reality is only a small handful of students will probably even test this year and those will be the most advantaged,” Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews told the Senate Education Committee earlier in the session.
Moving away from English-only for state government
Lawmakers agreed to back away from English as the official language of Utah government by passing SB214, sponsored by Senate Majority Assistant Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper.
The bill passed the House 55-17 Friday after clearing the Senate on Tuesday.
“We need to be able to communicate with all Utahns. ... This will provide clarity for all agencies and local governments,” floor sponsor Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said.
The English requirement was suspended by executive order of former Gov. Gary Herbert to ensure everyone would be able to get pandemic-related information in the language they understood.
Restrictions on executive powers get final approval
The Senate passed on concurrence a revised bill to restrict Utah gubernatorial, mayoral and local health department powers to issue prolonged emergency orders.
SB195 was approved by the Utah House of Representatives Thursday evening. The House did, however, amend the bill to explicitly prohibit government restrictions on religious gatherings unless its the “least restrictive means available” and “requires reasonable accommodations be provided for certain religious practices or rites.”
The bill passed unanimously.
Reviewing presidential orders
The Senate passed HB415, sponsored by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, which would allow the state’s Constitutional Defense Council to review certain executive orders by the president of the United States. Under the bill, the attorney general or governor could seek to have an executive order declared an unconstitutional exercise of legislative authority by the president.
The bill also restricts the enforceability of certain executive orders.
The bill passed 18-6 along party lines. It passed the House Tuesday and goes to the governor.
Task force to fight food insecurity after all
Utahns Against Hunger had expressed disappointment about SB141, which would create a task force on food security, being stalled in the House despite winning approval from the Senate.
“We are deeply disappointed that the House isn’t interested in addressing the issue of food security through data driven solutions,” Utahns Against Hunger said in a news release Friday.
In the last year, food insecurity rates have more than doubled in Utah, according to Utahns Against Hunger, which cited a study conducted by Northwestern University that showed food insecurity has climbed from 8.2% in February 2020 to 19.3% in December 2020.
Bill sponsor Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, worked with the group to address food security issues with the bill, which eventually made it to the floor as one of the last bills passed this session.
The House approved the measure at 10:32 p.m., and the Senate concurred with the substituted bill at 10:45 p.m.
Better tracking of data on use of force by police sails through
Without debate, the Senate gave final approval to one of several police reform bills that have made their way through the Legislature this year. HB84, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, would require local law enforcement agencies to collect and submit data on police use-of-force incidents to the Bureau of Criminal Identification, a state and federal database.
HB84 sailed through the Legislature without controversy and was lauded as an important measure to track data on police use-of-force incidents to inform future policies.
Physician assistants may soon practice mental health therapy
An effort to expand the ability of physician assistants to practice mental health therapy, SB28, passed the House unanimously on Friday.
Sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, would allow physician assistants who are specializing in mental health to actually practice mental health therapy.
“It’s not an easy path, but it provides a path ... it does allow those who want to open their own business to practice,” said floor sponsor Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville.
Bramble also sponsored SB27 to expand rights of physician assistants to practice outside the tight overwatch of a doctor.
Lawmakers add support to downwinders compensation
The Senate passed HCR18, which supports congressional efforts to extend and expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which compensates “downwinders” who were exposed to radiation during nuclear weapons testing between 1945 and 1962.
“There is legislation pending in Congress to extend the downwinders act, my mother actually was a downwinder,” said bill sponsor Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. He said the bill urges Congress to act on that legislation.
Kitchen inspections coming for people selling homemade meals
Health inspections and licensing will now be required for anyone selling homemade food in Utah. HB94 passed the Senate on Friday 25-2 after it passed the House unanimously in mid-February.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, was especially concerned about the sale and preparation of hot foods and meats versus the cookies and cakes that previously filled social media news feeds.
“Quite frankly, this is going on all over the place right now, and probably in every one of our districts. It’s happening,” Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said to the Senate.
For the first year, there will be a cap on how many home kitchens can apply for licenses.
Vickers said these microenterprise home kitchens that provide this ready-to-eat food will be able to come under health and food requirements while still providing income to the families that participate in it.
Schools will get heads up on public health orders
Utah’s public and private schools would be notified before the issuance of public health orders that will affect them under SB187
“This bill doesn’t go as far as I would like it to go,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, during House debate. “So what we came up with is at least they have to come up with a conversation of what the need is, what the plan is.”
The bill provides an opportunity for districts and private schools to give feedback and participate in conversations with the governor, health officials or the chief executive of a county over an impending order or extension of an order.
The substituted bill won final passage in the Senate Friday afternoon by a vote of 20-7.
Modifications to medical marijuana laws pass
The House passed SB192, which makes dozens of administrative changes to the medical marijuana law proposed to improve the state’s program that began last year.
Among larger changes, the bill would require the electronic verification system for those registered in the system to communicate dispensing information to the controlled substance database; allow for a 15th medical pharmacy to be licensed in a specific location; and remove a requirement that cannabis products are packaged in opaque material.
The bill passed 68-2.
State to boycott businesses that boycott Israel
Utah is joining 32 other states to limit government business with companies that boycott Israel over “Palestinian issue.”
SB186, sponsored by Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, would prevent any state government agency from doing business with a company that is currently boycotting the nation of Israel.
“Israel is an important trading partner for the state of Utah... We have a value system that is very much the same as theirs,” said Stevenson.
The bill passed the Legislature with a 48-16 vote from the House on Friday 48-16.
Process set for voluntary ‘no-buy’ gun registry
The Senate gave final approval to HB267, which creates a process for someone in crisis to voluntarily place themselves on a “no-buy” gun list to restrict them from buying a firearm for a limited time period. The restriction would stop after 30 days unless the person requests to be kept on the list longer.
Bill floor sponsor Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, a doctor by trade, said he’s been “shocked” by the increase in depression and anxiety cases he’s seen in his office “down to young children,” largely due to COVID-19.
HB136 putting regulations on gathering signatures for voter initiatives and referendums got its final concurrent passage in the House after being amended in the Senate on Thursday. The bill will require initiative sponsors to provide a paper or electronic copy of their referendum to signers and also give them the ability to remove their signature. It will require paid signature gatherers who go door to door to wear a badge identifying that they are paid.
This story will be updated.
Contributing: Katie McKellar, Ashley Imlay, Hannah Petersen, Marjorie Cortez