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Politics & Government

Passes, fails and DOAs. What happened during Utah's 2022 general legislative session

Government building - lighted in the morning.
Elaine Clark
/
KUER
The Utah legislative session wrapped up its 45-day general session Friday night.

The Utah Legislature passed 513 bills on everything from water conservation to election security to vaccine passports during its 2022 general session. Most still need approval from the governor.

The Legislature approved a $25 billion budget. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he’s most proud of what they were able to fund.

“Record funding for education,” Adams said. “A billion dollars for infrastructure. Funding social services at record levels and a tax cut. When you do all that, that's a pretty phenomenal session.”

The session started off with an intense focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. Adams gaveled in the session maskless after getting “mixed results” on his COVID tests earlier that morning. He had tested positive five days beforehand, and the CDC guidelines state that people who leave isolation after five days should wear a mask in public for an additional five days.

The Legislature also rolled back Salt Lake County’s mask mandate and ended the state’s test-to-stay program in schools during the first week.

But after that, the focus shifted to tax cuts, culture wars and water conservation.

Just hours before the end of the session, Gov. Spencer Cox said there were many bills he had been “very interested in vetoing” that didn’t pass. But one he was sure about was a bill banning transgender girls from competing in school sports on teams that align with their gender identity.

“Out of nowhere, getting a complete ban that nobody's talked to me about is incredibly disappointing,” Cox told reporters. “I'll veto this as soon as it's here. We'll just veto it and give them another opportunity to work on this. We'll work on it together.”

Education

Curriculum: As a national debate over critical race theory raged on, Utah lawmakers debated several bills about curriculum content and transparency.

✔️ The Legislature passed a bill banning pornographic materials from classrooms. Bill sponsor Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said it was necessary to provide a standard for schools to remove books. But critics worry that some books addressing important issues like sexual assault would be swept up in this.

❌ A proposal limiting how “divisive concepts” are taught in Utah classrooms did not pass. It would have banned educators from teaching “the promotion of a divisive concept” and banned schools from requiring training for its staff that promotes a divisive concept. The legislation included a long list of ideas that were divisive including, “that the state or the United States is fundamentally, systemically, or irredeemably racist, sexist, or nationalistic.” The list of ideas is similar to a critical race theory resolution the Legislature passed last year.

❌Teachers will not have to get instructional material pre-approved after lawmakers failed to pass a bill requiring it. Instructional materials include textbooks, videos and websites.

✔️ Utah students would have a new ethnic studies learning standard under a bill passed by the Legislature. The bill would establish a committee to study the contributions of ethnic minorities in Utah and recommend how to incorporate them into K-12 core standards. The committee would be made up of five representatives, five senators and two others appointed by the governor. They could also establish a subcommittee made up of people from community organizations, education groups and the general public.

Funding: ✔️ As required by law, per-pupil funding increased by 6% in the budget lawmakers approved this year. ❌ During the second to last week of the session, legislative leaders floated the idea of a constitutional amendment to allow more Education Fund money to be spent on things usually paid for through the General Fund. But, they ran out of time to hammer out an agreement and said they’d keep working on it after the session ended.

Bullying: ✔️ Lawmakers passed an anti-bullying bill in response to 10-year-old Izzy Tichenor’s death by suicide last year. Her mother said she had been bullied for being Black and autistic in the Davis County School District. This legislation requires school districts to adopt anti-harassment and anti-discrimination plans and report on how it’s working. It also requires districts to report demographic data on bullying victims.

School board elections: ❌ The Legislature rejected a bill that would have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local school board elections. Those local boards would have had to opt-in to the pilot project. Supporters said it would boost civic engagement and students should have a say in the board members who govern their schools. But critics said teenagers aren’t mature enough to vote.

Teacher bonuses: ✔️ Teachers across the state will get bonuses for the extra work they did during the omicron surge of COVID-19 this winter. It’ll cost Utah $10 million in total, although it’s not clear how much each teacher will get. During the height of the surge, there weren’t enough substitutes to cover all the teacher absences. Many teachers had to step in and act as subs for their coworkers. The idea is for this bonus to act as retroactive overtime for that work.

Vouchers: ❌ After Utah lawmakers raised concerns about public education funding and accountability, the House voted down a bill that would have given vouchers to kids whose parents opted them out of public schools. The amount they got would have been based on income. The bill was amended to keep per-pupil funding at the last public school the student attended and “hold education harmless,” but the move wasn’t enough to convince skeptics.

Full-day kindergarten: ✔️ A proposal to fully expand optional full-day kindergarten fell flat, but the Legislature did vote to partially expand it. The bill initially asked for $48 million to require and fund full-day kindergarten for the whole state, but the Legislature only gave it $12 million in the final budget.

Economic issues

Tax cut: ✔️ Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, dubbed 2022 “the year of the tax cut,” and boy, was he right. Lawmakers approved — and Gov. Spencer Cox signed — a $193 million tax cut. That includes an across-the-board cut to the state’s flat income tax rate. There are also provisions to support low-income Utahns, like earned income tax credits and increased credits on social security income.

Inland port: ✔️ Another year, another inland port bill — but Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall hopes this will be the one to finally close the “can of worms” that is the port. Under this legislation, Salt Lake City gives up its voting seat on the Inland Port Authority Board, which will now be made up of people with business experience. In return, the city gets more property tax revenue and more say over how the port uses its portion of the revenue. Plus, the bill requires 40% of that money to go toward mitigating the environmental impacts of the port.

Wages: ❌ A bill requiring that employees who receive tips be paid the minimum wage was not assigned to a committee and was dead on arrival. ❌ Lawmakers voted down a bill requiring that people working on a state construction project be paid a prevailing wage. A prevailing wage is what the U.S. Department of Labor determines is appropriate for a certain type of work.

Housing and homelessness

Affordable housing funding: Lawmakers approved around $55 million for new affordable housing projects — far less than the $228 million the governor initially requested. The approved funding is just a fraction of the $128 million Cox proposed for deeply affordable housing and units intended to support people exiting homelessness.

Community advocates said they were disappointed to see lawmakers prioritize a tax cut over affordable housing. Senate President Stuart Adams said he believes the Legislature funded what was needed in regards to affordable housing and that it was hard to please everyone.

Legislators also approved $15 million to support the preservation of existing affordable housing units.

Homeless services: ✔️ Officials and nonprofits in Salt Lake County have struggled for three years to set up a winter homeless shelter. Lawmakers passed a bill that forces city officials in the county to come up with a plan for an emergency overflow shelter by Sept. 1.

If the Utah Office of Homeless Services doesn’t approve that plan, there are backup options, like allowing current homeless resource centers to expand their capacity. The state could also open a shelter at a state-owned facility in Salt Lake County.

State lawmakers representing Salt Lake City said the capital city has already taken on more than its fair share of homeless resources and argued the bill didn’t spread the responsibility around equitably.

The bill also provides $5 million in ongoing funding to help cities with shelters mitigate their public safety impacts.

Democracy

Election security: National politics again came to Utah with an intense focus on election security, although lawmakers did not present any evidence to suggest there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

✔️ The Legislature passed a lengthy election security bill that requires measures like video surveillance of ballot boxes and requiring voters to include a photocopy of their ID in their mail-in ballots if they didn’t provide one when registering. It also requires county clerks to develop security measures related to documenting the chain of custody of ballots. The lieutenant governor’s office would have to audit voter registration records at least once a year. Among other things, it also prohibits tabulation machines from being connected to the internet, which election officials say is already standard practice.

❌ Utah’s vote by mail system is here to stay. A House committee voted down a bill that would have eliminated it. The legislation also would have banned turning in other people’s voter registration forms for them, which is something voter registration drives do sometimes. And it would have required the state to hire an outside firm to conduct audits of each election.

✔️ Utahns would have access to more data about the number of ballots processed during an election, under a bill the Legislature passed. It requires election officials to post the data online three times a week after they mail ballots out. The data includes the number of ballots the county clerk has received, the number of ballots that haven’t yet been processed, the number of ballots being processed and the number of ballots that have finished being processed. The last three figures should add up to the number of ballots received as an extra security measure.

Electronic signatures: ✔️ Utahns could sign petitions electronically to get initiatives, referendums or political candidates on the ballot under a bill the Legislature passed. The signature gatherers would have to use a device approved by the lieutenant governor that doesn’t share the person’s signature or other personal information.

Ranked-choice voting: ❌ A bill expanding ranked-choice voting statewide was basically dead on arrival and never received a hearing. Right now, 23 cities and towns are part of a pilot program using RCV for nonpartisan municipal elections. Supporters said it gives voters more options and limits hostile campaigning, but election officials had security concerns about using it in statewide elections.

Press access restrictions: ✔️ The House and Senate passed nearly identical rules limiting press access to certain areas of the Capitol. These resolutions do not require the governor’s signature. Previously, journalists with press credentials could enter certain non-public areas like the chambers and some hallways. Under the new rules, journalists now have to get permission from someone the House speaker or Senate president designates.

Public records: ✔️ Right now, if you make a public record request, the first 15 minutes that a government employee spends on it is free. However, they can choose to charge you for any time after that. In order to limit “vexatious requests,” lawmakers passed a bill allowing governmental entities to charge for those first 15 minutes if the person who requested the records has submitted another request in the past 10 days. This doesn’t apply to journalists.

Water and environment

Great Salt Lake: At the start of the session, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said restoring the Great Salt Lake was a top priority for him. The lake reached historic lows last year after decades of water diversion and unprecedented drought. The Legislature passed a trio of bills that work hand-in-hand to address water levels at the lake.

Instream flow: ✔️For a long time, Utah thought the best use for water was for human consumption. Lawmakers approved a bill that acknowledges keeping water in the source is actually a good thing. The bill allows water rights holders, like farmers, to lease those rights to organizations for conservation purposes. Basically, they could pay farmers to keep water in the source, which would lead to more of it flowing into the Great Salt Lake.

Watershed enhancement: ✔️Speaker Wilson sponsored a bill that piggybacks on the instream flow legislation. It creates a water trust that’s tasked with protecting the lake and its watershed. The bill allocates $40 million for the new organization to keep water flowing into the lake, so the water trust could use that funding to lease water rights for conservation.

GSL funding: ✔️ To help address the lake’s long-term restoration, the Legislature approved the creation of a new funding account specifically for managing water levels at the Great Salt Lake. The ongoing money will come from mining revenues related to mineral extraction at the lake.

Utah Lake: Utah Lake has a bad reputation. It's mostly known for its algal blooms, murky water and invasive plant and fish species. Scientists, though, say the lake is on a path to recovery. Lawmakers say more needs to be done to aid in that.

Utah Lake Authority: ✔️ Lawmakers approved a bill that creates the Utah Lake Authority, with a board focused on “remediating the lake, increasing recreation and increasing economic opportunities,” while preserving water rights, according to the bill’s sponsor. The board also has bonding authority.

Legislators stressed the authority isn’t related to the proposed “Utah Lake Restoration Project,” which would dredge up the lake bed to create islands. But public commenters at the bill’s Senate committee hearing seemed skeptical of the motivation behind the bill.

Restoration Projects: ✔️ In 2018, the Legislature passed a bill that opened the door to the islands project. This session, lawmakers amended that bill and put more constraints on proposed restoration projects. Now, the Legislature will need to approve the disposal of Utah Lake land for such a project.

Water conservation:

Cities, counties and homeowners associations will still be able to require property owners to grow grass. A bill banning that practice failed in its first committee hearing.

✔️ All new state facilities in Utah would be required to have less than 20% grass lawns under a bill lawmakers passed. It would also require the state to reduce outdoor water use. Existing state facilities would need to cut outdoor water use 5% by 2023 and 25% by 2026. The legislation also encourages this for homeowners and offers them rebates to replace their lawns with drought-resistant landscaping.

✔️ With the help of federal pandemic relief money, secondary water supplies would all be required to have meters installed by 2030 under a bill the Legislature passed. Secondary water is used for outdoor spaces like golf courses, parks and cemeteries. $200 million of federal funding will go toward helping water suppliers purchase and install those meters. The idea is that if people know how much secondary water they’re using, they’ll try to use less while Utah suffers from a historic drought. Water suppliers in the most rural counties would be exempt if the cost of the water meters is 25% or more of their operating costs and they produce a water conservation plan that the state monitors.

Criminal justice

Death penalty: ❌ Repealing Utah’s death penalty is again off the table. It was the third time in recent years that Republicans tried to do away with capital punishment. The bill spanned more than two hours of debate during its first and only committee hearing. Supporters of the death penalty, including some families of victims, said they considered it justice for horrific crimes. People who favored the repeal argued the death penalty was expensive and there was potential for executing innocent people. In the end, though, the bill met tough opposition, including from the House’s top Republicans.

Interrogating kids: ✔️ Lawmakers unanimously passed a bill that bars law enforcement from lying to children during an interrogation where the child is in police custody. They wouldn’t be able to use false information about evidence or an “unauthorized statement about leniency for the offense.”

Officer intervention: ✔️ Law enforcement, activists and legislators came together on a police reform bill this year. The legislation, which passed unanimously early in the session, requires police to intervene when they see another officer engaging in misconduct, like using excessive force. It also requires them to report it and prohibits retaliation against an officer who intervenes in and reports misconduct.

Health

COVID-19 vaccine mandates: Despite passing a vaccine mandate exemption during a special session last year, lawmakers took up the issue just a few months later during the general session. ✔️They passed a bill that allows employees to get out of a vaccine mandate by proving they have previously been infected with COVID-19. Experts note an infection doesn’t provide long-term protection against the disease. It would allow employers to mandate vaccines for their workers if there’s a “nexus” between the worker’s responsibilities and the vaccine requirement, or there’s an outside requirement for the employee to be vaccinated (like a contract) that’s not imposed by the employer. However, a bill that prevented businesses from requiring proof of vaccination — so-called “vaccine passports” — never got a final vote in the House.

Test to Stay ends: ✔️ By the start of the session, the omicron COVID-19 wave had already maxed out the state’s testing capacity and the state had suspended the Test to Stay program in schools. That program required all students in a school get tested for COVID-19 if a certain percentage of the school population contracted the virus. During the first week of the session, lawmakers permanently ended it. If a school wants to use Test to Stay and go remote for a period of time, they need to get permission from the governor, the Senate president, the House speaker and the state superintendent.

Overturning mask mandates: ✔️ One of the first things the Legislature checked off its to-do list was ending mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit Counties. The public health measures were approved by each county’s respective council, which was possible through a law the Legislature created in 2021. Legislators also gave themselves the power to undo those mandates and they wasted no time in doing so. They also bypassed the typical committee process, which includes public comment.

Supporters of the repeal said it wasn't the government's role to get involved in private health decisions. Opponents said it went against the Legislature’s “mantra” of local control.

Social issues

Transgender athlete ban: ✔️ The Utah Legislature voted to ban transgender girl athletes from playing school sports. The all-out ban was a last-minute proposal, released just hours before the legislative session ended. The ban replaced a bill that set up a commission to evaluate if individual transgender athletes should be allowed to play. It would have required that committee to come up with its own requirements, but suggested that they use physical characteristics like height, weight, or “the extent of physical characteristics affected by puberty.” However, the legislation that was passed says that if the ban is struck down or paused by a lawsuit, the commission system would go into effect. Gov. Spencer Cox said he will veto it, but would have signed the commission bill.

Transgender health care: For the second year in a row, lawmakers did not vote on a bill that would have made it illegal for doctors to administer gender-affirming care to transgender or gender-diverse people under the age of 18. That care includes puberty blockers, which experts say are safe and reversible, and gender affirmation surgery, which American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines say should generally be reserved for adults.

CROWN Act: ❌ For the second year in a row, a bill addressing race-based hair discrimination did not pass. It would have outlawed discrimination against someone for wearing a protective hairstyle, like locks and afros, historically associated with race.

Juneteenth: ✔️ Juneteenth would become a state holiday under a bill passed by the Legislature. June 19 celebrates the day when the last enslaved people were freed in Texas. Last year, the federal government recognized it as an official national holiday.

ERA: ❌ Once again, a proposal to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was dead on arrival and stayed in the Rules Committee the entire session.

Blood donation: ❌ A proposal calling on the federal government to revise its policy on gay and bisexual men donating blood did not receive a hearing. It was introduced a little over a week before the session ended. The current policy requires gay and bisexual men to abstain from sex for three months before donating. The resolution encouraged the Food and Drug Administration to enact a new policy that takes individual risk factors into account.

Modesty in sports: ✔️ The Legislature is encouraging schools and youth sports teams to allow athletes to wear religious clothing or headwear, or to modify their uniform in another way to “accommodate religious beliefs or personal values of modesty.” That resolution passed unanimously.

KUER’s Jon Reed and Lexi Peery contributed reporting.

Updated: March 5, 2022 at 1:45 PM MST
This story has been updated to reflect the exact number of bills passed in the 2022 general session.
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