Week 6 Legislative Recap: Election security, education funding and brine shrimp
The legislative session is in its final stretch, with just one week left. This is the time when lawmakers vote on a ton of the session's most important and most controversial bills. KUER politics reporter and State Street co-host Sonja Hutson joined host Caroline Ballard to talk about this week’s highlights.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: Let's start with an issue that's been popping up every session for the last several years — the inland port. Salt Lake City and a top Republican lawmaker came to an agreement they say will finally lead to some stability. What's happening?
Sonja Hutson: Yeah, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall says this whole issue has really been a can of worms, and the Legislature has made changes to it almost every single year because of that. She actually called this bill the “final closure of the worm can.” Basically, under this legislation, Salt Lake City would lose its voting seat on the board that oversees the port. But in return, the city would get more property tax revenue and more control over how the Inland Port Authority spends that money. Then in addition to that, the port would also have to spend some of that money on making the port more environmentally friendly, which has been a really big issue. And that bill passed the House this week.
CB: But when it comes to anything regarding the inland port, it's always been hard to make everyone happy. What are critics saying?
SH: Right, and this is certainly no different. We've got some Salt Lake City residents that say this still doesn't do enough to protect the environment and air quality. Then we've also got the town of Magna that's really upset. It's losing a seat on the board as well, but it's not getting any tax revenue like Salt Lake City is.
CB: Well, this week was not short on controversial legislation. So many people showed up to a hearing for an election security bill they had to open about five overflow rooms. What was in that bill that caused so many people to turn out?
SH: It would have made some really big changes to the state's election system. This legislation did fail in that committee hearing this week, but if it had passed, it would have eliminated the state's vote by mail system. It also would have banned turning in other people's voter registration forms for them. That's something that voter registration drives do sometimes. It also would have required the state to hire an outside firm to conduct audits of every election. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding said these were basically all security measures.
CB: Well, was Representative Lyman able to provide any evidence that vote by mail is not secure?
SH: He was not, and that was something that several Republican members of the committee pointed out before they voted down the bill.
CB: Legislative leaders are once again thinking about diverting money from the education fund to pay for other expenses. We haven't seen a bill yet, and it is really late in the session. What are they thinking about doing and is it even going to get done this session?
SH: I'm kind of surprised to see this issue come back so soon. Here's kind of a quick and dirty back story of this. In 2019, the Legislature passed this huge tax reform law to deal with what it called a “fiscal imbalance.” Basically, Republican leaders said that income tax revenue, which goes into the education fund, was growing really quickly, but sales tax revenue, which goes into the general fund, was slowing down. But that law was so unpopular that they actually ended up repealing it the very next month.
Then in 2020, they passed a package of legislation that allowed the education fund to be spent on a few other things outside of education. Then in return, the education community got some funding guarantees. But now they're saying that actually wasn't enough, and they may need to let that education fund money go toward more things that are currently funded through the general fund. This is a really big change, and on Friday, the House Speaker said they don't think they're going to be able to get it done this session. Like we said earlier, there's only a week left — but they do really want to keep working on this. So keep an eye out for this proposal in the future, it's not going anywhere.
CB: We always like to end these recaps with a bill that's a little more lighthearted. What do you have for us this week, Sonja?
SH: Well, the House passed a bill that would designate the brine shrimp as the official state crustacean.
CB: I have to say I feel like that seems like a pretty obvious choice if I'm being honest.
SH: I totally agree. I don't know if there's another crustacean that could give the brine shrimp a run for its money.