COVID is in the spotlight during first week of Utah’s 2022 General Session
Utah’s 2022 General Session got underway Tuesday, and lawmakers hit the ground running. KUER politics reporter and State Street podcast co-host Emily Means sat down with host Caroline Ballard to talk about unconventional COVID moves, potential tax breaks and what Gov. Spencer Cox had to say in his State of the State address.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: Let's start with COVID. We are experiencing a huge surge in COVID cases around the state right now. How is that impacting the Legislature this session?
Emily Means: Well, COVID has touched the Legislature in a pretty personal way. Senate President Stuart Adams tested positive for COVID just a few days before the session started, but he was there on day one presiding over the Senate. And in his opening speech, he said he was feeling much better, but also that he tested positive that morning. Now, a couple of moments later, he walked that back, saying he meant he had tested negative. But then his staff put out this statement, saying he had actually had mixed results. But then, [the Salt Lake Tribune later reported the president tested positive twice that morning.] So to me, and I'm sure to lots of other people, that was really shocking to hear that because Adams had also ignored CDC guidelines to wear a mask while he was in public at the Capitol. [The CDC recommends wearing a mask in public for five days after the five-day isolation period ends.]
CB: Beyond COVID as a personnel issue, it's also the focus of a lot of policy this session already. What are they looking at when it comes to the pandemic?
EM: One of the first items on the Legislature's to-do list was tackling local mask mandates. Salt Lake County ordered one in early January. Summit County also had one. They were allowed to create these mandates because of a law the Legislature passed last year. But the Republican sponsors said people can take responsibility for their own health, and the bill passed mostly along party lines, with some Republicans voting against it. So those mask mandates in Summit and Salt Lake Count[ies] have now been overturned.
The Legislature also passed a bill to officially suspend the test to stay response to COVID outbreaks in schools. The thing that's notable about both of these measures is that Republicans bypassed the normal legislative process to get them passed. Typically, bills will go to a committee before being debated by the full House or Senate. That's where the public can also give input, and that just didn't happen with these two.
CB: Let's pivot to a big theme for the session — taxes. The Senate president has said that this year is — once again — "the year of the tax cut." It's at least the second year in a row that it's been dubbed that. What is on the table this time?
EM: Yeah, I thought last year was "the year of the tax cut," but the Legislature has a big budget surplus to play with this year. A lot of that is due to federal COVID funding, and it was also just a good revenue year. So they have a couple of options. There are a few proposals to cut the income tax rate. That seems to be what Republican leaders are throwing their weight behind. On the other hand, Democrats support removing the state sales tax on food. There are even more tax proposals than that on the table. But at this point, it's a little too early to know exactly where the Legislature will land.
CB: We also heard from Gov. Spencer Cox in his State of the State address and the Democrats’ response. What stood out to you?
EM: What we heard is that Gov. Cox's priorities really align with the Republican supermajority in the Legislature and even the Democratic minority. We're talking about education, issues related to growth — like affordable housing, water conservation and infrastructure. The question is how do they address these things? And that might be where they differ on policy.