The Utah Legislature’s 45-day general session came to an anticlimactic yet rare, early end after legislators hashed out essentially all of the headlining issues and finalized the state’s record $29 billion budget with hours to spare before its deadline.
Lawmakers finished their business Friday evening shortly after 9:40 p.m., well before the clock struck midnight for the first time in recent memory.
The 2023 session was largely dominated by debates over complex and generational issues facing the state, including what Utah should do about the record drought gripping the West and threatening the Great Salt Lake, how to tackle the state’s housing affordability crisis, and how to fund other big budget priorities, including education.
Utah’s Republican-controlled Legislature used its vast budget surplus to invest heavily in those priorities — while also continuing what’s now been three years of tax cuts for Utahns. This year, legislators set aside $400 million for what they called a “historic” yet “measured” tax cut package, about $380 million of which would drop Utah’s income tax rate from 4.85% to 4.65%.
State lawmakers also moved on two long-debated issues with big implications for Utah’s public education system: implementing a school choice scholarship and asking voters to remove restrictions on income tax dollars for public education.
For both of those issues, the Legislature strategically tied them to two enticing carrots: giving teachers a $6,000 pay raise in exchange for school choice, and repealing the state’s portion of sales tax on food, but only if voters agree to remove constitutional restrictions on education dollars.
Some of the most controversial debates centered around legislation to further restrict Utah’s abortion laws, and a bill restricting gender-related medical interventions for transgender minors. In the early weeks of the session, lawmakers moved quickly to ban transgender surgeries for children and teens, as well as place an indefinite moratorium on new prescriptions of cross-sex hormones or puberty blockers for kids, which is likely to lead to a lawsuit from LGBTQ groups.
Here are the highlights of what the Utah Legislature did this year:
Budget and taxes
Lawmakers late Friday put the finishing touches on the state’s record $28 billion budget, which included funding more than $5.1 billion in new spending requests and tax cuts.
Water, housing and homelessness, education, transportation, and taxpayers were among the big winners for the upcoming fiscal year.
- Nearly $500 million to address statewide water conservation needs, including $200 million for agricultural water optimization, $40 million for water reuse and desalination, $50 million for Wasatch Front aqueduct resilience, and $50 million for water infrastructure projects.
- An increase to the education budget of $578 million in ongoing revenue and $339 million in one-time funds, a nearly 20% increase. That includes $236 million for a 6% increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit. In total, the Legislature appropriated $15 billion to public education and education programs from all sources.
- Over $200 million in new money for affordable housing and homelessness initiatives.
- More than $2 billion toward infrastructure and transportation improvements.
- A $400 million tax cut package, plus another roughly $239 million in various tax decreases, including $32.7 million to lower the state tax on gas by 2 cents per gallon, $51 million in a low-income housing tax credit, and $146 million to maintain the decreases of the basic property tax levy freeze.
The $400 million tax cut package outlined in HB54 reduces Utah’s income tax rate to 4.65%, and would also expand the Social Security tax credit to individuals earning up to $75,000 per year, provide a tax benefit for pregnant women by allowing a double dependent exemption for children in the year of their birth, and increase the earned income tax credit from 15% to 20% of the federal tax credit.
A water year at the state Legislature
The dramatic decline of Utah’s Great Salt Lake amid a more than 20-year drought prompted lawmakers to again pump money into water conservation.
Last year, they ponied up a half billion dollars in the water arena and followed that this session with $427 million in spending.
Some critics complained the Legislature didn’t do enough to ensure enough water makes it into the lake and were disappointed when a resolution setting a target elevation failed.
Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, said this winter’s snowpack allowed lawmakers to focus on long-term solutions that will have an impact, instead of pulling an emergency lever that had been in the works.
“We’ll be a little better on how we do that if we have to pull that emergency lever, but we’ve made long-term solutions,” he said.
Sandall successfully pushed for $200 million for agricultural optimization, which provides money for the implementation of water-saving tools on Utah’s farms and ranches, as well as making improvements to irrigation canals in need of updates. Agriculture consumes the majority of water in Utah. Another $15 million will be devoted to the metering of secondary water, which has been proven to shave consumption by 23% or more.
Among some of the notable actions endorsed:
- HB307 by Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, establishes Utah Water Ways with $2 million in one-time money and ongoing spending of $1 million. Utah Water Ways is designed to promote water conservation similar to the Utah Clean Air Partnership, or UCAIR, that tackles air pollution through grants and public information campaigns.
- HB491 by Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, creates a Great Salt Lake commissioner and the Great Salt Lake Commission with an eye for the state and other stakeholders to invest in a more hands-on approach to factors that affect the eighth largest saline lake in the world.
- SB118, sponsored by Sandall, provides an additional $3 million in ongoing money to turf buy-back programs.
Housing and homelessness
While Utah continues to suffer from a persistent housing shortage and an affordability crisis, there was no shortage of bills grappling with housing issues that made their way through the Legislature this year.
Lawmakers largely favored a freer market approach to deal with housing problems, focused on getting out of developers’ way so they can build more houses at more cost-effective price points, make somewhat of a dent on the housing shortage, and therefore eventually lead to more affordable homes.
A trio of “consensus bills” seeking to streamline and standardize regulations to help make housing development faster and more predictable — while also balancing local control — won final legislative approval in the final days of the session.
The bills, SB174, HB364 and HB406, stemmed from months of work from the state’s Commission on Housing Affordability, and were supported by the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
There were a few cases, however, of controversy:
- Summit County accused lawmakers of doing a “favor” for a specific developer by targeting legislation at a specific development proposal. The state lawmaker behind it argued Summit County had violated state law by not adopting a housing and transit reinvestment zone at Kimball Junction. That controversy surfaced after the bill, SB84, had already won approval from the House and Senate. It now awaits the governor’s signature or veto.
- The Utah League of Cities and Towns opposed a late-filed bill, SB295, that would allow developers to create their own districts to finance infrastructure projects. Supporters argued it would help facilitate more development, but critics claimed it would be an “unprecedented” move to create a new political subdivision that could assess taxes and yet not be accountable to elected officials. That bill won approval from a Senate committee but didn’t advance further.
Another bill, SB199 also won approval from the full Utah Legislature and has big implications for Utahns’ ability to challenge housing developments at the ballot. It would block voters from seeking a referendum against a local legislative land use decision if it’s approved with a unanimous vote. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, argued referendums have been “weaponized” against housing developments.
The Legislature also funded and approved SB240, a bill to use $50 million to help first-time homebuyers buy new homes — but only if they’re newly constructed. The aim, said sponsor Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, is to help Utahns afford to buy while also encouraging homebuilders to continue adding to the state’s housing stock.
Overall, legislative leaders in charge of the budget prioritized over $198 million in new spending on various housing and homelessness programs.
In the state’s ongoing fight against homelessness, lawmakers also approved a bill mandating counties provide homeless shelters and enforce anti-camping laws. The bill, HB499, would also implement a “code blue” that would take effect when temperatures reach 15 degrees Fahrenheit or below. The code would require resource centers to expand capacity by 35% and allow other entities to open warming centers.
The legislative session started with a whirlwind of controversy over legislation to restrict gender-related medical interventions for Utah’s transgender youth. In the first two weeks of the session, the lawmakers approved SB16, a bill to ban transgender surgeries for Utah children and teens, as well as place an immediate, indefinite moratorium on newly prescribed hormonal treatments for minors.
Republican legislators rallied behind SB16 to regulate transgender medical care for Utahns under 18, arguing Utah must step in and “protect” children because there is not enough research on the long-term impact of these procedures and medications on children.
During two emotional public hearings, lawmakers heard personal stories of both the harm and benefits of transgender medical procedures on children and teens. They also heard from medical professionals who argued both for and against the bill.
The day after final legislative approval of the bill, Gov. Spencer Cox signed it. The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and the National Center for Lesbian Rights said they plan to file a lawsuit against the law.
In contrast, another bill that could have resulted in controversy within the LGBTQ community ultimately resulted in a compromise and even celebration.
An earlier draft of HB228 would have loosened Utah’s 2020 administrative ban to allow talk therapy forms of conversion therapy for minors. However, Rep. Mike Petersen, R-North Logan, announced a compromise with LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Utah.
The new version, which ultimately won unanimous approval, would continue to ban conversion therapy for minors in Utah by enshrining the already existing 2020 rule in state code, while also clarifying language that had created ambiguity and concerns for Utah therapists, counselors and professionals.
Throughout each step of the legislative process, lawmakers applauded Petersen for finding a middle ground that all stakeholders were happy with. Equality Utah also celebrated its passage, calling it “the first conversion therapy ban in the country to pass through both chambers unanimously.”
Cox said he would sign the bill.
Utah lawmakers appropriated what some leaders described as “generational investments” in education, which included a 6% increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit, along with a near $1 billion increase in new funding.
All told, there was an 18.5% increase in education funding over the previous year, Adams said.
“That just can’t be lost,” said Adams, adding, “It’s 18, almost 20%, almost a fifth increase. That is staggering.”
Lexi Cunningham, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, said in a statement that public education budget for the upcoming fiscal year is “very education friendly.”
“They provided for growth and inflation, and added additional funds to the WPU. The budget they passed creates flexibility for LEAs (local education agencies) to best meet the needs of students,” said Cunningham, who also represents the Utah School Board Association.
Financial matters aside, lawmakers approved significant policy changes that in years past didn’t get across the finish line due to the objections of the Utah Education Association, the Utah State Board of Education and other education interests.
Early in the session, state lawmakers approved HB215, which created the Utah Fits All Scholarship program. It enables qualifying parents to use $8,000 in state funds for private school, home schooling or other private educational options.
HB215, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, is a sea change in Utah education policy in that it expands the use of public money for private education choices far beyond existing programs for families of children with disabilities.
The Utah State Board of Education, Utah Education Association, Utah PTA, school superintendents, business administrators and school boards opposed the legislation. The legislation also includes language that granted every licensed Utah educator a $6,000 bump in compensation, which one Republican lawmaker, a public school teacher, said felt like a “bribe,” though he still voted for it.
While lawmakers agreed to substantially improve teacher pay, there also were a number of proposals regarding school libraries and instructional materials teachers said they viewed as punitive or signaling mistrust of educators.
The State School Board requested that a suite of nine bills be held to study the potential fiscal impact and administrative support needed to implement. Of the nine, two passed.
One was HB427, titled “Individual Freedom in Public Education,” which prohibits educators from subjecting a student to instruction that “forces” them to change a sincerely held belief, value or standard taught in the student’s home or attempts to persuade a student to a point of view that is inconsistent with principles of individual freedom.
Some language in the bill mirrors Florida’s controversial “anti-woke law” now known as the Individual Freedom Act and currently under legal challenge.
HB464, meanwhile, would have required Utah public schools to establish a rating system for books and other instructional materials. That bill was not considered in the House before its adjournment.
One proposal that was roundly supported was the further expansion of full-day kindergarten starting next school year and funding kindergarten on par with grades 1-12.
Under HB477, which passed overwhelmingly, kindergarten will remain optional for Utah families and schools will continue to offer half-day programs for families who do not want a full-day experience for their children.
After ongoing talks between lawmakers and education interests, legislators moved forward with a resolution to ask Utah voters whether to remove restrictions on the uses of income tax revenue.
Currently, the Utah Constitution limits using income tax to fund public education, state-supported colleges and universities, and programs for children and people with disabilities.
Lawmakers passed SJR10 and companion legislation, HB394, Friday afternoon. The resolution will place the proposed constitutional amendment on the general election ballot in 2024 while HB394 will hold public education harmless financially in times of declining enrollment. It will take effect if Utahns vote to change the constitution. Removal of the food tax also hinges on voter approval of the amendment.
The resolution sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, will place a constitutional amendment on the November 2024 ballot asking to “remove” those limitations, which legislative leaders say impede their ability to budget since growth in income tax revenue far outstrips sales tax.
When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the right to abortion last June, it became clear that abortion law would be a key issue during the legislative session. Utah already had one of the nation’s strictest so-called “trigger bans” on the books, which went into effect shortly after the court’s ruling.
But that law has been on hold since July while the Utah Supreme Court considers a challenge brought by Planned Parenthood Action Council of Utah, meaning abortion has remained legal through 18 weeks of pregnancy. Early in the session, lawmakers proposed a resolution to change court rules in an apparent effort to overturn the preliminary injunction currently halting the trigger law.
HJR2 passed Feb. 14, but the state has yet to file a motion to end the hold on Utah’s ban.
Lawmakers also passed the most restrictive abortion bill since the Roe ruling, effectively closing down elective abortion clinics and forcing patients to seek abortions in hospitals. Critics of the bill, including Planned Parenthood, say it puts even legal abortion all but out of reach for low-income Utahns.
Another bill related to abortions won legislative approval. HB297, sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, would expand support services for rape victims, and require that police departments develop policies and training for handling sexual assault allegations. Under the trigger ban, abortions are legal in cases of rape or incest, but victims are required to report to police to qualify.
HB297 would also provide health care to women who become pregnant after being raped for the duration of the pregnancy and up to a year after they give birth.
When doctors perform abortions in cases of rape or incest, HB297 would require them to first “verify” that a woman reported the assault to police.
Both HB467 and HB297 remove exemptions for rape or incest past 18 weeks of pregnancy.
Cox said he plans to sign both of the bills.
Cox took a strong stance against social media companies ahead of the session, blaming them in part for alarming negative trends in teen mental health. He later announced plans to sue social media companies for the alleged harms against children — likening modern social media platforms to the tobacco giants of old — and said he would sign any and all social media regulations the Legislature sends to his desk.
Lawmakers — including Cox’s brother-in-law, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork — have followed the governor’s lead with a pair of bills to prevent minors from joining social media without their parents’ approval and to give individuals more legal power to sue companies for damages.
McKell’s SB152 specifies that social media companies not rely solely on government-issued IDs for age verification, after several people raised concerns about having to upload a driver’s license or passport in order to join.
SB152 also mandates that platforms provide parental controls and prohibits companies from collecting data or advertising to minor users.
South Jordan Republican Rep. Jordan Teuscher’s companion bill, HB311, creates a legal presumption that social media use is harmful to minors. It means that if a social media company is sued, the company would have the burden of proof to show that its service is not harmful — a potentially high legal bar to clear. The bill also prohibits algorithms or other features that a company knows to cause a minor to become addicted to the platform.
After her cousin was killed last August, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson has been the driving force behind efforts to expand domestic violence protections. She worked closely with Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, on a bill that would require police to conduct lethality assessments when responding to reports of domestic violence.
Although lethality assessment protocols have been used optionally by several law enforcement agencies in Utah, no such assessment was completed in Amanda “Mandy” Mayne’s case, Henderson said.
Domestic violence service providers also received additional funding after Cox requested $50 million to help keep providers afloat.
Several hot-button issues cropped up during the 2023 session. Here are some of the highlights:
State flag: The decision to adopt a new state flag now rests in the hands of the governor after SB31 won legislative approval. Years of thought and preparation led to controversy and long debates in both chambers.
The current state flag would be kept and used as a ceremonial flag to commemorate the history associated with it.
Magic mushrooms: Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, proposed a bill that would narrowly legalize psilocybin, better known as magic mushrooms, similar to how the state currently regulates medical cannabis, but only as a temporary pilot program that would be open to no more than 5,000 Utahns.
However, mid-session, Cox threw cold water on the bill when he told reporters he was “just not there yet” and argued the state should not be “experimenting” on Utahns. Days after the governor’s comments, SB200 stalled in a Senate committee.
Katherine Heigl and animal gas chambers: The celebrity highlight of the session was Katherine Heigl’s support of SB108, a bill that bans gas chamber euthanasia across the state. Heigl is an American actress and animal rights activist.
The bill passed unanimously in both chambers.
Trick or treat ... on Friday? Lawmakers ultimately voted “boo” after a pun-filled debate on SCR5, a resolution that would have encouraged schools and workplaces to celebrate Halloween on the last Friday of October. It failed in the Senate, leaving the choice of when to celebrate the spooky holiday up to communities.