Does the Utah Legislature really believe in local control? Here’s what leaders have to say
From COVID-19 restrictions to firearm rules, Utah lawmakers again flexed their power in 2022
Local control. It’s a contentious issue practically every year during the Utah Legislature’s 45-day general session, which this year concluded Friday at midnight.
The issue was particularly contentious when it came to COVID-19 restrictions — and Utah’s Democratic legislative leaders on Tuesday expressed concern that as the Utah Legislature continues to exert its power over cities and counties, that’s eroded the state’s public health system and its ability to respond to future emergencies.
“One of the big tragedies that we’ve seen with this COVID outbreak ... is an erosion of our public health system, which has served us very, very well,” Senate Minority Caucus Manager Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said. “One of the things that we have done in the last 18 months has really destroyed, in many ways, the public’s trust in the institution of public health.”
Davis said it’s also a “tragedy” that Utah lawmakers have “taken control away from those who understand what the problems are at the local level.”
It’s not only happened with COVID-19, Davis said, but in the public education system, with lawmakers trying “to dictate what’s going on in the classroom” and telling children “what to learn.”
“I think that’s very very dangerous to the future,” Davis said.
Davis’ comments came during a panel discussion hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in partnership with the Deseret News and Utah Policy at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City. The Deseret News’ executive editor, Doug Wilks, moderated the conversation.
Another one of Utah’s Democratic leaders said the Legislature’s persistent pattern of dominating cities and counties is a logical result of one party having a supermajority grip over the entire legislative body.
“This is a natural fruit of having a very powerful Legislature that has supermajority control by one party,” House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said. “Whenever you have those kinds of concentrations of power, you are more likely to move in the direction of exercises of those powers that are, at times, beyond what they should be.”
King said he’s known “more than one” House speaker that’s “wished that they had more members of the minority party in the House” to create more balanced policy.
“Not this speaker, let me be clear,” King said, gesturing to House Speaker Brad Wilson, drawing laughs from both Wilson and the audience.
From the other side of the political aisle, Utah’s Republican legislative leaders defended the Legislature’s moves this year to yet again flex its power over cities and counties, whether it be over COVID-19 orders such as mask mandates — or even cities’ abilities to regulate ATVs, an issue that’s spurred controversy in one of Utah’s top outdoor destinations, Moab.
“There are times when the Legislature says there’s a statewide interest that needs to be thought about here,” Wilson, R-Kaysville said. “There’s also times when there’s maybe a striking situation where the Legislature says, ‘Maybe something here is just not working the right way, and we’re going to have the Legislature move in and weigh in on this issue.’”
Why did Utah lawmakers take control of COVID-19 policy?
This year, the local control was debate was front and center, when — after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic — the Utah Legislature used its self-granted power to trump local COVID-19 restrictions in the early days of the session even as Utah’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were peaking from the omicron surge.
Lawmakers swiftly passed a joint resolution to terminate mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties. Other pieces of legislation followed, including HB182, a bill closing a legal loophole Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall interpreted to issue mask mandates. The bill also clarified state facilities, including the Capitol, do not fall under a local health department’s jurisdiction for health orders, such as mask mandates — an issue Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Gov. Spencer Cox clashed over a week before the 2022 session began.
Adams said Utah lawmakers acted quickly in the first days of the session to overturn the mask mandates because he viewed it as a “divisive” issue that he didn’t want to overshadow the session.
“We did it opening day because I wanted it behind us,” he said. “I think we can calm down the divisiveness of our communities; I did not want the entire session to have a divisive feeling through it.”
Wilson said lawmakers have been eager to move on from COVID-19. “There were reasons why,” he said, lawmakers felt overturning local mandates “made sense.”
“I think all of us are looking forward to someday soon, hopefully, turning the page on COVID. Vaccine mandates, mask mandates, all those things are very, very divisive,” Wilson said.
Do Utah lawmakers believe in local control or not?
Wilks asked Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, if they believed in local control on the city and county level when several laws passed this year appear to contradict that principle.
On actions to override COVID-19 restrictions, Adams said the Utah Legislature was simply “following the statute” lawmakers created in 2021 — with input from the Utah League of Cities and Towns and counties — that gives the Legislature the power to “appeal” decisions at the local level.
“Statutorily we are the appeal body,” Adams said. “So we either had to be complicit and allow the mandate to stay in place, or we had to act and repeal. It wasn’t a matter, really, of control. It was a matter of following our statute.”
There were other examples, too. By passing HB271, the Legislature also took aim at Salt Lake County’s rule that requires vendors at gun shows in county facilities to run background checks. The bill seeks to declare with more clarity the state has total control over gun laws in Utah — and no city or county can work around that power.
Additionally, the Utah Legislature also approved HB440, a bill that puts more pressure on cities to come up with a plan to provide winter overflow shelter space for the state’s homeless every year. If they don’t? The state will step in and flex capacity limits at existing homeless centers.
Wilson said Utah lawmakers sorted through hundreds of bills and “balanced” local control on a case-by-case basis, with the same principle in mind that cities and counties have been delegated their power by the Legislature under the Utah Constitution. That’s why, he said, the local control debate is different at the state level than it is at the federal level.
But times when lawmakers step in are “the exception, not the rule,” Wilson said, adding that most of the time, legislators prefer local leaders to make decisions at the local level.