Utah lawmakers kicked off the 2024 Legislature by passing a pair of controversial “culture war” bills that were quickly signed into law by Gov. Spencer Cox, and before the 45-day session ended Friday, they’d also come up with billions of dollars in stadium funding plans intended to attract major league baseball and hockey teams to Utah.

The unusually intense session also dealt with plenty of other issues, with lawmakers giving the green light to a record 591 bills that cut taxes, encouraged the development of affordable housing, funded homelessness programs, managed energy and water supplies, censured a state school board member, delayed the start of social media age restrictions, and more.

“This will be a capstone,” Gov. Spencer Cox said of the session, which will be the last of his first term in office. “Because we’re doing the big things and that’s what I’ve always said — I’m not interested in the small stuff. We have big issues that we need to solve.”

Cox, who’s running for reelection this year, said he was especially excited about the progress on housing affordability and homelessness in what has been a tight budget year. Lawmakers ultimately approved a $29.4 billion budget, $100 million less than the governor proposed spending in the budget year that begins July 1.

“This has been a complicated session,” Cox told reporters Friday night. “But I feel with a couple hours left that I can say it’s been a successful session.”

Both House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, were also upbeat about the session that ended at midnight. “We think we’ve had just a really great 45 days,” Adams told reporters after ticking off a list of accomplishments.

In the waning minutes of the session, the Senate defeated a motion to reconsider its earlier 9-20 vote against passing HB477, which prescribed specific flags that could be displayed in a classroom. Shortly thereafter, the Senate abruptly adjourned nearly 15 minutes before the midnight deadline.

But it was the Legislature’s early efforts to end diversity, equity and inclusion programs at public universities, colleges and other government institutions, along with requiring some transgender people to use public bathrooms and changing rooms that match their sex assigned at birth, that sparked the most friction on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

DEI and transgender issues

Utah lawmakers overhauled diversity, equity and inclusion programs in public institutions, including universities, schools and other state entities, at the very beginning of the session. The new law guarantees student success resources at public universities are available to all “high-risk” individuals, including first-generation students, while prohibiting DEI practices that discriminate based on race, religion or sexuality.

Under the new law, Utah’s public universities will be required to conduct employee trainings on the value of free speech and conduct campus climate surveys, with periodic reports given to state lawmakers based on the results. State funding can be withheld if institutions fail to address violations of these requirements.

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The beginning of the session was also dominated by a privacy bill, referred to as the “transgender bathroom bill,” that codifies a definition of male and female based on reproductive biology, requires individuals to use public restrooms and changing rooms that align with their sex designation at birth in most cases, and mandates the availability of unisex bathrooms in public facilities.

Proponents of the bill have said it will increase privacy and safety for women. But critics have argued the policy targets transgender individuals who were also the subject of high profile legislation in 2022 and 2023, regarding high school sports and medical treatment, respectively.

The Larry H. Miller Company and Miller family unveiled renderings for the Power District, a nearly 100-acre site adjacent to the Utah State Fairpark and the Jordan River, Feb. 15, 2024. Here is an aerial view of the Power District looking east. | Larry H. Miller Company

Stadiums, tax cuts, voting and clergy

The stadium funding bills emerged near the end of the session, and were rushed through hearings.

The bills would set the table to help fund construction of two new sports venues as well as transform parts of Salt Lake City. Both contain tax increases that are contingent upon Utah landing Major League Baseball and National Hockey League franchises. For a baseball stadium, a new reinvestment district in the west-side Fairpark neighborhood could raise the rental car tax 1.5%. For a downtown hockey arena, Salt Lake City could impose a 0.5% sales tax hike.

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A fourth year of tax cuts was a top priority for the Legislature’s Republican supermajority and they followed through, reducing the state income tax rate for a third year, from 4.65% to 4.55% for individuals and corporations. The state’s nonrefundable child tax credit, aimed at helping lower-income taxpayers, was also extended to children up to four years old.

The price tag for the income tax cut went from the $160 million set aside by legislative leaders late last year to nearly $170 million, due to an increase in the estimated growth of state revenues. But the much-anticipated revenue update that came near the end of the session wasn’t enough to improve what had already been labeled an “underwear and socks” budget year.

In an election year for every member of the House and half of the Senate, how Utahns vote was on the minds of some lawmakers. But efforts to weaken universal by mail voting went nowhere this session and an attempt to raise the vote threshold for passing some initiatives stalled. While a bill ending ranked choice voting in the state was heard, it failed to pass.

The proposal to speed up the expiration of Utah’s ranked choice voting pilot program advanced from the House to the Senate, where it failed to pass in a narrowly split vote. Over the last three odd-year election cycles, dozens of Utah cities have experimented with ranked choice voting, an electoral system that asks voters to arrange candidates in preference order on their ballot, instead of just selecting one.

Supporters of the bill said the voting method has produced the opposite of its intended results, increasing voter confusion in the cities where it’s been tried and fueling distrust in elections. While opponents of the bill pointed out the program was scheduled to sunset automatically and that surveys had shown Utah voters like ranked choice voting.

“I’m disappointed that it didn’t pass because (ranked choice voting) adds into the mix a whole bunch of other layers that just makes it confusing and harder for the voters to understand,” Schultz said Friday. “So in my eyes, that is one step that erodes election integrity.”

Had some election legislation made it to the governor’s desk, it may have been vetoed.

Cox, who said there’s nothing on his veto list “right now but that doesn’t mean there won’t be,” said legislative leaders responded “every time I used the ‘v-word’ privately with them.” He said there were “some bills that haven’t passed, that didn’t go anywhere that we feel pretty good about and that may have been on the veto list.”

While he declined to be specific, the governor acknowledged that included some election bills, especially those targeting by-mail voting.

“That was a concern, so that didn’t pass. Again, I think a reflection that we do elections well in our state,” said Cox, who as the former lieutenant governor was responsible for overseeing elections. “Those are always big decisions and I think they should be thoughtful and not things that just pop up in an election year.”

Utah legislators united around a bill protecting clergy from liability if they report ongoing child abuse, passing the measure unanimously in the final two weeks of the session. They amended the state’s child abuse reporting requirements to include legal protections for members of the clergy who report cases of ongoing abuse or neglect learned through a religious confession.

Unlike similar proposals from past sessions, the bill does not categorize clergy members as “mandatory reporters,” because this designation could force some religious officials, such as Catholic priests and others, to choose between obeying the law and remaining in good standing with their faith.

House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, takes a selfie in the house chamber on the last day of the 2024 legislative session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 1, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

House minority reacts

Citing controversial social and energy bills, Utah’s House Democratic leadership said on Thursday this legislative session was one of the most politically polarized they’ve experienced.

“It’s probably been the toughest session I’ve had and this is going to be my 12th year,” Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said. “I felt like a lot of policy has been neglected for the politics.”


Increased tension and decreased compromise on the Hill was partially caused by a new change moving the candidate filing period to right before the session, Romero and other minority leadership said. But Schultz pushed back against that characterization.

“Obviously we have some different opinions on policy. I would suggest I think that the majority of Utahns appreciate those bills that we’ve passed. I understand and recognize that they represent a different constituency, and it was hard for them,” Schultz said.

Schultz estimated there had actually been more bipartisan votes this session than any other he could remember.

Other big issues this session

  • Housing — The governor called a suite of bills meant to incentivize affordable home construction the “biggest housing package in the United States right now.” While his recommended housing proposals never saw the light of day, Cox said the unique funding mechanisms created in collaboration with the Legislature will do much more to help prospective Utah homebuyers.
  • Homelessness — Utah lawmakers dedicated $25 million toward a new low-barrier emergency shelter with 600 to 800 beds for people experiencing homelessness. Private giving will also help establish the shelter, the location of which has not yet been determined. Leaders also agreed to appropriate $11.8 million in one-time funding for the statewide homeless system and passed legislation to help ensure that the Utah State Hospital has options to ease patients’ transitions to living in communities upon their release.
  • Water — In the arena of water, perhaps the most significant and controversial bill addressing the management of Utah’s most finite natural resource, was the successful passage of SB211, sponsored by the Senate president and the House speaker. It establishes the Water Development Council and a gubernatorial appointed “state water agent” to set Utah’s water future going forward by as much as 100 years, including seeking out-of-state resources and maximizing the state’s use of its Colorado River allocation, some of which flows downstream to California. Critics, including a media coalition, objected to the measure because it allows negotiations about securing future water resources to be exempt from public scrutiny. It does not allow the council to appropriate money or set policy — that goes through legislative and executive approval.
  • Great Salt Lake — Lawmakers also approved millions more in funding for the Great Salt Lake via the office of the Great Salt Lake Commissioner and directed the establishment of a “state water plan,” with an eye for more coordination.
  • School board — State lawmakers took the unprecedented step this session of publicly censuring a state school board member who posted on social media an image of a Utah high school student athlete that inferred she is transgender. Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, sponsor of HCR18, said Natalie Cline’s actions were “so outrageous, so abhorrent, and so reprehensible that we must act.”
  • Education — The legislative session was a mix of initiatives intended to stabilize Utah’s teaching ranks, including stipends for student teachers and sizable pay increases for qualifying, top-performing educators. In higher education, Utah lawmakers authorized a total of $800 million in bonding authorization for University of Utah Health’s planned hospital and medical campus in West Valley City. They also passed legislation that establishes minimum standards for tenure and post-tenure review at state-supported, degree-granting colleges.
  • School safety — A long-studied school safety bill passed, which will allow trained school employees with valid concealed carry permits to respond to emergencies such as an armed intruder. It also establishes minimum safety procedures for schools, such as panic buttons, improved communication systems and required reporting by state employees and others if they become aware of threats to schools.
  • Inside the classroom — Lawmakers also passed legislation that can allow for statewide removal of school library books or materials deemed pornographic or indecent but provides an option for schools to appeal to the state school board. There was also a measure introduced that sought to control what Utah teachers can say and display in their classrooms, but it failed. In the waning hours of the session, the Senate defeated another bill that had a prescriptive list of allowable flags in classrooms, which some senators opposed due to the lateness of the proposal, but also, as Sen. Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, put it, “Are we just needing to outlaw rainbows?” A bill that would have required Utah public schools to post the Ten Commandments was amended to include the commandments and the Magna Carta to an optional list teachers can use in their curricula.
  • Social media — At the start of the legislative session, legislators passed a bill that would delay the implementation of Utah’s first of its kind social media law from March to October. Lawmakers passed amendments to the original act, paring back some provisions like requiring parental consent to join social media.

Contributing: Hanna Seariac, Dennis Romboy, Marjorie Cortez, Amy Joi O’Donoghue

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