World events, national decisions and local issues, not to mention the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, impacted the lives of Utahns in 2022. Looking back over the year, Deseret News reporters and editors identified some of the most important Utah stories for the past 12 months.
Politics drove many of the year’s headlines: A divisive U.S. Senate race, the death of Utah’s longest-serving senator, as well as conflict over abortion and transgender athletes.
Severe drought continued to plague Utah and much of the West and efforts to revive the dying Great Salt Lake intensified. Utah’s housing market went crazy before coming back to earth. COVID-19 persists but the flu and respiratory illnesses shot up. Amid all of that, Utah’s economy remained strong and Salt Lake City’s effort to host another Olympics is on track.
Here are summaries of the year’s top stories:
Lee-McMullin duke it out in headline-making Senate race
Republican Sen. Mike Lee and independent Evan McMullin engaged in a bitter and expensive battle for the U.S. Senate. In an unprecedented move and at the urging of prominent Democrats in the state, the Utah Democratic Party voted to back McMullin instead of nominating its own candidate.
Attacks ads saturated the airwaves and social media for weeks preceding the Nov. 8 election.
In the end, the experiment to run an independent against the two-term Lee failed. McMullin succeeded in building a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Lee’s conservative GOP base in one of the most intriguing Senate races in the country.
Utah voters returned Lee to Washington for a third term in one of the closest Senate races in decades. Lee won with 53.1% of the vote to 42.7% for McMullin. The candidates and the super PACs supporting them spent a total of at least $35 million.
In addition, all four Republican Utah congressmen — Chris Stewart, John Curtis, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore — were reelected.
It’s the economy (and inflation), stupid
Persistent, record-high inflation wasn’t an issue for decades, but that took a dramatic turn in the last year and a half in spite of aggressive monetary policy moves aiming to tamp down surging costs.
Inflation dropped in November to its lowest rate in a year, but the Mountain West region, which includes Utah, consistently saw the highest regional rate in the country.
The economic strife hit individuals and families in Utah where it hurts most as the rising costs of basic necessities have driven inflation to at or near 40-year highs for much of the year. A vast majority of Utahns expressed great concern over inflation and the possibility of a recession as they paid more for groceries, gas and other household items.
Still, Utah’s economy has thrived according to many national rankings and economic indicators. State lawmakers have a more than $3 billion surplus and are eyeing tax cuts heading into the 2023 legislative session.
Sen. Orrin Hatch dies
Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate and the longest-serving senator from Utah, died April 23 at age 88. He was first elected in 1976 and served 42 years in the Senate until retiring after his seventh term in 2019.
Hatch served with seven presidents — four Republicans and three Democrats — headed three committees and passed nearly 800 pieces of legislation in his time in office. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Americans with Disabilities Act were among the laws he championed. In a 2018 interview with the Deseret News, Hatch identified the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as his favorite bill.
At his funeral, Hatch’s daughter, Marcia Hatch Whetton, described him as larger than life. He was remembered for his legacy of public service, dedication to family, love of people and devotion to God. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Hatch was buried in Newton in Cache County, the hometown of his wife, Elaine.
Utah abortion law takes effect, then freezes
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling guaranteeing a woman the right to an abortion, returning policymaking power to individual states.
The decision made elective abortions illegal in Utah, with few exceptions, after the Utah Legislature’s general counsel determined the state’s 2020 “trigger” law met the legal requirements to take effect. Utah’s law allows abortions only if the mother’s life is at risk, if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest, or if two physicians who practice maternal fetal medicine both determine that the fetus “has a defect that is uniformly diagnosable and uniformly lethal or ... has a severe brain abnormality that is uniformly diagnosable.”
Salt Lake City’s Olympic bid rolls on
Salt Lake City continues to make its case to host another Olympics. It’s competing with Sapporo, Japan; Vancouver, Canada, and possibly other cities to host the Winter Games in 2030 or 2034. The 2002 Winter Games were held in Salt Lake City.
The International Olympic Committee might be looking to name hosts for both the 2030 and 2034 Games at the same time, a decision that won’t come until at least July 2024. A dual award is a best-case scenario, since hosting in 2034 is financially preferable to bringing back an Olympics in the U.S. just 18 months after the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
The IOC also is considering a plan to rotate the Winter Games among a limited number of cities. While U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee members say the Utah region is well positioned to be considered as a permanent host, it is premature to suggest Salt Lake City would be part of a possible rotation.
Utah bans transgender girls in high school sports
The Utah Legislature passed a law, HB11, in the closing hours of the 2022 general session that banned transgender girls from competing in girls high school sports. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed the bill but was overridden by state lawmakers in a special session in late March. The bill contains a trigger mechanism that would create a “school activity eligibility commission” should a lawsuit succeed in challenging its legality.
Three transgender girls hoping to play high school sports on a girls team sued the state. In August, a state judge issued an injunction stopping enforcement of the ban, but left the rest of the bill in effect, meaning that transgender girls can seek permission from the commission to play on girls high school sports teams.
After one competitor won a girls’ state-level competition last year, the parents of those who placed second and third lodged a complaint with the Utah High School Activities Association calling into question the winner’s gender. Without notifying the winning athlete or her parents, the school examined the student’s enrollment records and determined she had always been female.
Housing market boom and bust
Utah has been at the center of a crazy housing market shaken up by the COVID-19 pandemic. Home prices are now correcting as higher mortgage interest rates clamp down on demand. But it’s not easing the state’s housing shortage and that means the housing affordability crisis isn’t going anywhere.
Utah’s home prices peaked in May, before fallout from the Federal Reserve’s fight with inflation hit the housing market. Since then, Utah’s median sales price has declined 9.3%, according to calculations by Dejan Eskic, a senior research fellow at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
While the Fed’s rate hikes are stemming demand for now, it’s not addressing Utah’s housing shortage, which has for years fueled Utah’s housing affordability crisis even before the pandemic housing frenzy. Even though home price increases are slowing and in some areas dipping, higher rates are keeping monthly mortgage payments high.
The pain of the Great Salt Lake and ongoing drought
Declining water levels at the Great Salt Lake and what it may mean for Utah’s future has drawn concern from residents and federal and state leaders. The receding saline lake is challenged by a worst-in-12-centuries drought, climate change and water diversions.
The Utah Legislature threw a half billion dollars at water conservation strategies for the state this year and created a $40 million trust dedicated solely for mitigation efforts on the lake. Gov. Spencer Cox’s budget proposal calls for $560 million for water management and conservation programs, including $132.9 million focused directly on the Great Salt Lake.
The U.S. Senate passed a bill co-sponsored by Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney that allocates $5 million every year for the next five years for the U.S. Geological Survey to study the impacts of drying saline lakes. Similar legislation is going through the House.
Living in a new normal
Going on nearly three years now, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact life in Utah, but not to the degree it did in 2020 and 2021. Most Utahns, it seems, have moved on and are less concerned about getting the virus, though surges continue. Few wear masks in public and most have distanced themselves from social distancing.
A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll in October found nearly 70% of residents weren’t concerned about getting the coronavirus. For most Utahns, COVID-19 has joined the ranks of other viruses like the flu that are here to stay but no longer as serious of a concern because of experience, natural immunity and vaccinations. Social gatherings, concerts, sporting events, shopping, travel, church and other activities are much the same as they were before 2020.
As of Dec. 29, reported COVID-19 cases in Utah numbered 1,074,828, hospitalizations 40,871 and deaths 5,187 since the start of the pandemic, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Even as COVID-19 persists, other illnesses have spiked, most notably flu and respiratory syncytial virus or RSV. As 2022 comes to a close, emergency room visits for RSV showed a steady increase over the past two months to a seven-day average of more than 100 cases as of Nov. 30. Due to a steady stream of patients with RSV and other respiratory illnesses, Primary Children’s Hospital has been at or near capacity for weeks.
War in Ukraine felt by Utahns
Utahns have seen and felt the impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. Residents donated money and supplies to help displaced Ukrainians as well as welcomed refugees into their homes. They planted blue and yellow flags in their yards and held rallies to show solidarity with Ukraine.
The nearly yearlong war has also had an impact on people’s pocketbooks as higher prices on goods and services escalated amid the ongoing economic fallout.
Various organizations in the state, including the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation and Latter-day Saint Charities, delivered money and goods to the war-torn nation. Individual Utahns made their way to Poland or Ukraine to help people on the ground. Catholic Community Services collected items for refugees coming to Utah.
Dozens of Ukrainians have resettled in Utah as the war rages on, many with host families who have gone as far as to remodel their homes to accommodate them.
Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola
After years of debate over how to reduce traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the Utah Department of Transportation recommended building a gondola.
The gondola, estimated to cost $550 million, would take skiers and snowboarders from the La Caille base station on Wasatch Boulevard eight miles to Snowbird and Alta at the top of the canyon.
UDOT says it will take a phased approach, implementing an enhanced busing system, tolling, building mobility hubs for public transportation and restricting single occupancy vehicles while it waits for funding.
Utahns are split on whether they support the plan. Some critics worry the project will actually end up costing taxpayers over $1 billion, factoring in operational and maintenance costs and unforeseen expenses that could come with constructing such an ambitious project.