As they head into the 2022 general session set to kick off Tuesday, leaders at the helm of the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature have big budget items like water, transportation, housing and education top of mind, along with special focus on how to cut taxes.
But what’s notably absent from their priority lists is action to limit COVID-19’s spread — even as Utah sees a crushing surge in cases that’s increasingly overwhelming hospitals and now maxing out the state’s ability to test.
Instead, expect to see legislative leaders prioritize personal choice as the highly-contagious omicron variant spreads like wildfire, still standing firm on their positions against mask mandates and any additional COVID-19 restrictions. While they continue to voice their support for vaccines and masking at-will, they argue mandates only fuel division.
“It’s crazy right now,” House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, acknowledged of Utah’s current cases. But when asked why COVID-19 is absent from legislative priorities, his answer was simple.
“The thing is, I don’t know there’s a whole lot that government can do,” Schultz said. “Look at all the states around the nation, governments trying to intervene and change outcomes, and it’s not changing the outcomes.”
Rather, Schultz said it’s a time to acknowledge Utah’s just in for some hard weeks ahead.
“Here’s the thing. I think we just need to be realistic and understand that the next couple of weeks it’s going to be rough,” he said. “And I think people need to do what’s best for themselves, their families and their communities over the next few weeks. And then hopefully when this omicron variant peaks ... hopefully we’re on the other side and things are going to get better.”
What are Utah lawmakers going to do — or not do — about COVID-19?
Unlike the 2021 session — when the Utah Capitol opened to the public with mask and social distancing requirements — there are no mask requirements on the Hill this year, even though case counts are higher than ever. Despite protest from Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, Gov. Spencer Cox has exempted state buildings from the countywide mask mandate. Testing will be provided for lawmakers on a bi-weekly basis, but it’s encouraged, not required.
As for legislative actions related to COVID-19, it’s possible that lawmakers could tackle the 30-day Salt Lake County mask order that the County Council declined to overrule this week, though House and Senate leaders have been vague on whether they’ll exercise that power. In interviews with the Deseret News, they didn’t rule it out, but made no promises.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told the Deseret News it’s “possible” the Utah Legislature could overturn the county’s 30-day mask order before it expires. He said if lawmakers want to override, it would be their constitutional “prerogative.”
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville — who held a news conference Thursday that began with a staffer telling reporters to stick to questions about the House’s legislative priorities and to not ask about COVID-19 — said, when pressed anyway on multiple issues related to the pandemic, it’s too early to say what lawmakers will do. But he added, “I, like a lot of my colleagues, think masks make a lot of sense, I don’t think mandates are the right solution.”
Schultz, who recently issued a statement urging county leaders to “reconsider their actions” on the mask mandate, said he’d rather see the county ask, not tell, residents to protect themselves and their community.
“This divisiveness, to me it’s causing more problems than the pandemic is,” he said. “It’s tearing us apart.”
What legislative leaders did say was likely this session, however, was “clarification” of state law to close loopholes in code that have allowed Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to require masks in Salt Lake City schools.
“I have to admit, when we drafted that bill we certainly didn’t foresee a mayor getting involved in a school, but quite frankly we stepped back and watched (the mayor) followed the law the way it was written,” Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said. “We’ll have some discussion about that, and there may be some action on that.”
Some GOP lawmakers have already filed bills taking aim at vaccine requirements, like HB60 from Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, the “vaccine passports” bill that seeks to prohibit “discrimination” against individuals based on their “immunity status.” And there’s HB63 by Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, the “natural immunity” bill that would require employers to give employees vaccine mandate exemptions if they have a doctor’s note explaining they’ve already been infected by COVID-19.
Days away from the 2022 session, Gov. Spencer Cox and other state leaders — minus an absent Adams, who tested positive for COVID-19 — held a news conference to address Utah’s huge swell of COVID-19, telling Utahns who have symptoms to forego testing, assume they have COVID-19 and just stay home.
Cox said lawmakers will consider what to do about the “test to stay” program in schools that was intended to keep students in the classroom but instead has been suspended as so many omicron cases have been identified that many schools are returning briefly to remote learning. Wilson said lawmakers intend to “figure out the right path forward” for schools, noting “government, as we all know, doesn’t get to decide how pandemics behave.”
Most of all, state leaders are already setting their sights on what Cox deemed an “endemic,” predicting that after Utah reaches the height of the omicron peak, cases will slow and the state will return to normal.
Until then, legislative leaders are all but letting COVID-19 run its course. To Katie Matheson, deputy director of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, that’s “so frustrating.”
Is the Utah Legislature now ‘ignoring’ COVID-19?
“We’re worried. We’re worried about the Legislature thinking it can declare a pandemic over,” Matheson said, pointing to last year’s “endgame” legislation, “and the fact that they’re choosing to ignore it this year.”
“COVID running rampant in Utah I would say is probably at least in part a policy failure, and that’s a policy failure at the hands of the Utah Legislature,” Matheson said, noting some schools are now “begging” parents to substitute teach and hospitals are overrun, limiting surgeries. “We are all impacted by the Legislature’s decisions that COVID is over.”
Matheson said if lawmakers move to even further restrict local government’s ability to enact COVID-19 restrictions, like close the loophole that Mendenhall found, or override Salt Lake County’s mask mandate, they will be “actively tying the hands of the people who are trying to respond to the pandemic.”
Salt Lake County Council Chairwoman Laurie Stringham, the key swing Republican vote to let the countywide mask mandate stand, told the Deseret News on Friday she plans to meet with legislative leaders on Monday to discuss next steps.
“Everybody wants to talk about the mask mandate, but nobody wants to talk about the real problem right now,” she said.
She expressed frustration that “people are overreacting” about a county mask mandate that isn’t being enforced, and said she’s focusing her energy on what to do about staffing shortages that are troubling schools and businesses. She said she’s more concerned about those issues, as well as getting high quality masks into the hands of those who want them.
Stringham, however, welcomed a 2022 legislative session more focused on looking ahead, beyond the pandemic.
“What they really need to be focused on is rebounding from this and moving forward,” Stringham said, expressing specific concern about “what we are going to do to bring down the cost of housing.”
Housing — along with other major issues troubling Utah — are indeed high on lawmakers’ priority lists this year.
In a wide-ranging interview last week, Adams told the Deseret News he’s hoping 2022 will be another “year of the tax cut,” and he favors using the $160 million lawmakers have already set aside for an across-the-board income tax rate reduction rather than the governor’s proposed grocery tax credit.
Wilson said the House GOP caucus still needs to discuss tax proposals in depth, but he noted there are “a lot of people who like the idea of a tax cut that benefits every single Utahn.” However, he also said “there are a lot of ideas out there,” and what that tax cut proposal looks like still needs to take shape. It’s possible lawmakers may “couple” an income tax cut “with something that’s a little more targeted,” Wilson said, “but we’ll see what the support of that is in the House and Senate.”
Adams also said education dollars and programs remain a “high priority” for him, as well as other issues he said fall under “infrastructure” in his mind, like using federal dollars to expand high speed internet and broadband statewide.
The Senate president also said he expects the Utah Legislature to spend a significant amount of money on water conservation efforts and transportation. That includes not just to double track FrontRunner but also increase its speed with “express trains.”
From the House side, Republican leadership put together a detailed list of their priorities. The House GOP caucus released the plan last week spelling out what “policy pillars” will frame the 2022 general session in their eyes. Here’s a breakdown:
“Utah is one of the driest and fastest-growing states in the nation,” the House GOP’s plan states. “Strains on our water supply threaten our ability to thrive, our recreational opportunities, our environment, and our food supply. Securing reliable water to meet these needs sustainably for generations to come will require a significant, coordinated, statewide effort.”
So the House GOP caucus is prioritizing “action to conserve, optimize and preserve” water, specifically listing these action items, many of which align in concept with what the governor recommended in his proposed budget:
- Implement secondary water metering statewide.
- Invest in agricultural optimization.
- Invest in rural drinking water infrastructure.
- Preserve the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake.
2. Keeping life affordable
“Life is getting more expensive in Utah due to our state’s rapid population and income growth,” the House GOP’s plan states. “Buying a home, raising a family, or settling into retirement in Utah is a dream that is becoming out of reach for many.”
So House Republicans pledged to focus on ensuring “local and state elected officials take the long view and consider regional and statewide goals as they enact policies” as well as identifying “government policies that have exacerbated these economic challenges.”
Their action items:
- Align economic development incentives with housing needs.
- Reduce regulations that limit the availability and supply of affordable child care.
- Evaluate statewide government employee compensation.
- Reduce the tax burden on Utahns.
3. Education modernization
“While we have seen many recent advancements in education policy and funding, there is always room for improvement,” the House GOP’s plan states. “Utah must foster innovation in higher-ed and K-12 classrooms, change the narrative on allocating education funds to reflect outcomes — not algorithms, and work with our partners to ensure education is a pathway to employment and not a barrier.”
Their action items:
- Establish an education innovation fund.
- Align education pathways with career opportunities.
- Expand the critical workforce pipeline.
- Create equal educational opportunity for all Utah children.
4. Preserving quality of life in the face of growth
“Over the last decade, Utah has experienced the fastest population growth in the country,” the House GOP’s plan states. “While this growth has brought great success to our state, it also presents significant challenges.”
To maintain Utah’s quality of life, House Republicans are proposing transitioning the state’s focus from “rapid expansion” to sustainable growth “by aligning economic incentives, enhancing and maintaining our recreational assets, and modernizing and investing in roads and transit. We also must rebalance and safeguard our state’s constitutional authorities and make adjustments to our criminal justice system to better serve the citizens of our state.”
Their action items:
- Align state and local economic development incentives with our key targeted industries.
- Sustainable revenue system for outdoor recreation.
- Consolidate state outdoor recreation efforts.
- Modernize state transportation funding (this includes addressing the “dying” gas tax, the rise of electric cars, and whether the state should start charging for miles driven on roads).
- Safeguard Utah’s constitutional authority from federal overreach.
- Adjust criminal justice policies to promote accountability, reduce recidivism, and collect good data.
5. Generational investments
“As the state looks forward, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make large-scale, strategic investments in key projects that will provide benefits felt by us, our children, and our grandchildren,” the House GOP’s plan states.” By acting now with the same foresight shown by past leaders, we can invest a portion of our abundance today to ensure Utahns continue to prosper for decades to come.”
Their action items:
- Ensure the construction of infrastructure at Point of the Mountain maximizes the return on our taxpayer funded investment.
- Strategically align Inland Port board composition with statewide goals (this entails changing the port board’s “governance structure” to “represent the interests of the entire state”).
- Expand investments and economic development opportunities in Rural Utah.