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Passes & fails: Here’s what happened during Utah’s 2023 legislative session

Rakel Davis
/
KUER

The Utah Legislature tore through hundreds of bills during its 45-day session. Lawmakers tackled taxes, criminal justice, education and everything in between.

They didn’t steer clear of controversy, either. In fact, they frontloaded the session by introducing and passing two contentious bills within the first two weeks. Gov. Spencer Cox already signed both: A ban on gender affirming-care for minors and a salary raise for teachers that was tied to a school voucher-style scholarship fund.

From there, things slowed down. A brief interlude for water week. Talk about school safety, air quality and social media — before jumping right back into abortion. February passed quickly into March and the final rush to the last day of the session.

Here’s what did and didn’t make it past the Legislature in 2023 (editor’s note: The House adjourned sine die at 9:50 p.m., and the Senate followed at 10:24 p.m., on Friday, March 3, 2023):

Budget:

✅ The “historic” $29 billion budget: Called the “bill of bills,” SB3 contains about $850 million in tax cuts, but also included measures like a $6,000 teacher raise, $250 million in housing funds, over $1 billion in transportation funding and over $350 million toward water-related funding — including $200 million in agriculture optimization.

Education:

Vouchers & Teacher Raises: With HB215, lawmakers both gave public school teachers a $6,000 raise and established a “Utah Fits All” scholarship fund to help parents pay for their children’s private school tuition or homeschooling supplies. It sets aside $239 million out of a nearly $1 billion public education budget for the program. Around 5,000 students will be granted scholarship money to attend alternative schooling. Critics of the bill, including the Utah Board of Education and the largest teacher union in the state, argued a teacher pay increase shouldn’t be attached to a voucher program because they are two separate issues.

Full-day Kindergarten: The Legislature voted to fund full-day kindergarten with HB477, but it will be up to the school districts to decide when and if they would offer it.

Regalia: High school seniors can now wear cultural and religious regalia at graduation ceremonies under SB103. On a similar trend, lawmakers approved a bill that allows students to wear cultural and religious clothing as part of a school sports uniform.

Curriculum and “sensitive materials”: The debate over what should be taught in public schools didn’t sneak past the Republican supermajority. A slew of bills related to school curriculum had been introduced, but not all have passed or made it through the final hurdles to land on the governor’s desk.

Birth certificate proof: Under HB463, students would have been required to hand over their birth certificates in order to play school sports. Coaches would have also had to verify the birth certificate to ensure they were able to eligible to play. Rep. Kera Birkeland said the bill was a safeguard that kids are within the age range.

Religion in school: HB427, Individual Freedom in Public Education, prohibits teachers from dismissing or talking discriminately about religion in school subjects. It also allows students to pray at school. Democrats were almost willing to vote in favor if they added “gender identity” to the protected groups listed in the bill.

No more school letter grade ranking: Right now, public schools are assigned a letter grade – A through F – based on how the school is performing overall. That would cease under HB308. Critics of this system say it’s outdated and a letter grade doesn’t show the full picture. The grades are largely based on standardized tests. The State Board of Education supported the bill as did the Utah Education Association.

No teaching sexuality: HB550 sought to censor conversations around sexuality in the classroom and prohibited it from kindergarten to third grade. It never made it out of the House Rules Committee.

Higher education:

Residency for tuition: HB102 lets non-American citizens be granted Utah residency which allows them to pay in-state tuition at public universities if they’ve applied or been approved for a certain immigration status.

Diversity Equity and Inclusion: Two bills targeting DEI initiatives did not make it through the legislature this year. HB451 would have prevented schools from asking job applicants about what they have done to further inclusion or diversity. It passed in the House, but failed in a Senate committee. SB283, which would have banned DEI offices at Utah’s public universities, also failed in the Senate.

LGBTQ+:

Gender-affirming care ban: SB16, which was signed by the governor the day after it was passed, bans gender-affirming care for minors. It took immediate effect and is an outright ban on surgical procedures as well as hormones or puberty blockers. Republican bill sponsor Sen. Mike Kennedy expects the legislation to face litigation over constitutional issues.

Birth certificates: Transgender youth won’t be able to change the gender marker on their birth certificate until age 16. It only applies to birth certificates issued in Utah. The original version of SB93 stated a gender marker could not be updated until age 18.

Conversion therapy ban: Utah now has a total ban on all forms of conversion therapy. The original version of HB228 essentially overturned the prohibition on conversion talk therapy passed by the Legislature last year. After a deal was reached, the bill now clarifies language on what a therapist is allowed to talk about with a minor patient regarding gender and sexual identity.

Abortion:

Abortion clinics closing: Further restrictions to abortion access passed on the last day of the session. HB467 closes all abortion clinics in the state by Jan. 1, 2024. It also requires the procedure to be performed only in hospitals or state-approved clinics within the first 18 weeks of pregnancy in most cases. Abortions are only allowed in a few instances, like the threat to the mother's health and if the person became pregnant as a result of sexual assault. If a person is seeking an abortion because of rape or incest, they must file a police report. Children under the age of 14 who become pregnant are presumed to be victims of sexual assault and do not have to report it to the police.

Injunction rule changes: HJR2 changed how state courts can grant injunctions. Although it does not specifically target the state’s law that enacts a near-total ban on abortions, the fact that the “trigger law” is tied up in court was a motivating factor.

Victim services: Legislators approved HB297 which requires law enforcement to compile data on the number of sexual assaults reported, investigated and prosecuted. It also requires additional training for law enforcement on how to respond to sexual assault reports. But it tied those mandates to an abortion stipulation. The bill states if a sexual assault survivor wants an abortion, they must file a police report first. The physician must verify that a report was filed before performing an abortion. The abortion cannot take place after 18 weeks of pregnancy.

Criminal Justice:

Lethality assessments: Law enforcement agencies are now required to take lethality assessments when responding to domestic violence calls to determine the danger to a victim. SB117 says those results will be put into a statewide database for other police agencies and the Utah courts to use. Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson helped create the legislation backed by Republican sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler. Other lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Brad Last who covers Enoch, said this bill could prevent the senseless killings of intimate partners because the database could identify if domestic violence is part of a larger pattern instead of believing it is a one-off incident.

Domestic violence data collection: HB43 creates a task force to compile lethality assessment data collected by officers and disseminates the reports across the state so agencies, like the courts, know the history of the perpetrator.

Religious clergy reporting: Religious clergy will not be required to report confessions of abuse to law enforcement. Democratic Sen. Stephanie Pitcher put forth a bill that would make clergy mandatory reporters if they believed the abuse was ongoing or likely to happen again. But Senate President Stuart Adams told reporters he believes there are First Amendment issues and doesn’t want to put clergy in a position where they could be “excommunicated or put in jail.” The Salt Lake Tribune reports Pitcher hopes to continue the conversation during the interim.

Prison suicide prevention: Lawmakers passed HB259 with the hopes it would prevent future suicides at state correctional facilities. The bill allows Utah prisons and jails to apply for $140,000 in grants to install barriers, like big nets, in an effort to protect incarcerated individuals from jumping off the top of buildings. In 2020, 19 inmates died by suicide, but it’s unclear how many of those deaths were from falling off buildings.

Unified Police Department: The Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake will dissolve in 2025 after HB374 gained enough votes. UPD was created in 2009 to help metro municipalities save money by sharing a police force. UPD covers Copperton, Brighton, Holladay, Kearns, Midvale, Magna, Millcreek, White City, Brighton and Emigration Canyon. But in the last several years, Herriman, Riverton and Taylorsville formed their own police departments. And because of that, and concerns about residents overpaying in taxes, Republican bill sponsor Rep. Daniel Teuscher proposed to do away with UPD altogether.

Firearms:

✅ Firearms amendments: HB219 declares that Utah will not enforce federal firearms regulations that restrict or ban certain firearms, ammunition or firearms accessories. Senate sponsor Sen. Evan Vickers admitted it’s a “message bill” that effectively makes Utah a Second Amendment sanctuary state.

Firearm access: A bill that would have required all firearms to be securely stored or disabled with a locking mechanism when not in use was defeated in committee. HB354 would have also held the owner of an unlocked firearm liable if someone used it to commit a crime.

Taxes:

Another tax cut: Utah lawmakers gave the green light to a $400 million tax cut — about $600 million short of the governor’s $1 billion proposal. HB54 slashed the state income tax from 4.85% to 4.65%. It also expands eligibility for Social Security tax credits, adds a tax benefit for pregnant people through the first year of their child’s life and increases the earned-income tax credit from 15% to 20% of the federal level. Additionally, it would remove the state portion of the food sales tax if Utah voters pass a constitutional amendment in 2024.

Gas goes down, EVs go up: The state gas tax will be reduced, but a tax on charging an electric vehicle will increase. That’s after lawmakers approved HB301. The increased revenue will go to the state’s Transportation Fund. The cost of registering a vehicle with the DMV also went up by $7.

Income tax amendment: An amendment to change Utah’s Constitution, SJR10, passed on the last day would loosen the restrictions on how lawmakers spend income tax. Currently, the state constitution outlines that income tax revenue can only be used to fund public and higher education, along with a few other services. House and Senate leaders said if the educational earmark goes away, so will the state portion of the food sales tax. But Utah voters get the ultimate say on the issue since it’s an alteration to the Utah Constitution. The amendment will be on the 2024 general election ballot if it passes out of the chambers.

Water:

Emergency water shortage: Utah now has a general idea of what needs to happen in the case of an emergency water shortage not caused by drought.HB150 outlines what water use should be prioritized if a main source is compromised due to something like a natural disaster contaminating a city’s drinking water supply.

Great Salt Lake water levels: A non-binding resolution introduced by Democratic Sen. Nate Blouin would set a target water level for the declining Great Salt Lake failed to make it out of committee. The goal would be to raise the lake about 8 feet from where it sits currently. The resolution didn’t have a deadline to reach the goal or an enforcement mechanism. Opponents of the bill, including Gov. Cox, said it put too much focus on Great Salt Lake while ignoring other water problems across the state.

Great Salt Lake commissioner: Many different state agencies preside over Great Salt Lake. HB491 creates the Office of the Great Salt Lake Commissioner to oversee and enact a plan to help save the lake.

Great Salt Lake water rights: A proposal to divert new funds from the Lake Powell Pipeline and Bear River Development to a Great Salt Lake fund for five years never left the House Rules Committee. Democratic sponsor Rep. Joel Briscoe said HB286 would have helped bring water to the lake by purchasing existing water rights.

Water-wise landscaping: HB450 pushes back against Homeowner Association regulations when it comes to landscaping. It states HOAs and other subdivisions cannot prohibit a homeowner from installing water-wise landscaping, like tearing out the grass for a more resource-efficient material.

Water-efficient landscaping: A different bipartisan landscaping bill, HB272, failed in the Senate. It would have restricted the use of lawn or turf by certain governmental entities. Senators had concerns that it treated all local governments the same, regardless of where it gets its water from.

Turf removal: SB110 gives more dollars to a turf buyback program. The state will help a homeowner pay to rip out their grass for a more water-wise option like rock or bark. This bill partners with water districts throughout the state that have similar initiatives.

Land use:

✅ A bill that amends Housing and Transit Reinvestment Zones passed and is awaiting the governor’s signature. SB84 and HTRZs are aimed at making it easier for affordable housing to be built near public transit. However, a provision in the bill has Summit County officials upset because it would effectively allow a development project in Kimball Junction to be built without the county’s input or consent.

Environmental:


Bromine air quality: Utah will be studying what's exactly in our infamous pollution-ridden inversions after HB220 was passed. The state Division of Air Quality will also come up with a plan to reduce those emissions by the end of next year. The bill was scaled back from its original goal of reducing emissions along the Wasatch Front by half in the next seven years, but sponsor Rep. Andrew Stoddard said his only non-negotiable was doing nothing.

Homelessness:

Winter shelters: The Legislature is bolstering the state’s response to Utahns experiencing homelessness. SB499 requires cities across the Wasatch Front to establish shelter plans during the winter months to keep people off the streets during freezing temperatures. Additionally, if temperatures drop below 15 degrees (including wind chill), shelters can increase capacity. However, it prohibits cities from taking state funds for homelessness services if it doesn’t have or won’t enforce a no-camping ordinance.

Social media:

Parental permission: If a minor wants to open a social media account, the parents or guardian needs to sign off on it first. SB152 not only requires parental permission before an account is opened but requires social media companies to verify the age of a user. If a minor is able to open an account, it prohibits the company from allowing certain accounts to direct message a minor, and the profile will not show up on the search bar.

Social media addiction: HB311 attempts to curb minors from becoming addicted to social media. It bans social media companies from designing a platform that could entice a minor to develop an addiction. It also sets aside more than $400,000 to aid investigations and enforcement.

Elections:

Mail-in or in-person voting: SB189 would have allowed county clerks to decide how to conduct elections in Utah. It failed to move out of the Senate Rules Committee. If it would have passed, the Lt. Governor’s Office would still have had to approve the county clerk’s decision. Republican Sen. Evan Vickers told reporters that bill sponsor Sen. Mike Kennedy agreed to hold off on the legislation and work on it during interim.

Primaries and ballot access: HB393 would have voided all candidates who gathered enough signatures to land on a primary ballot if another candidate received at least 70% of the delegate vote at a party convention. If they met the convention threshold, the candidate would head straight to the general election ballot. Count My Vote, the organization that paved the signature gathering path to begin with, opposed the bill because it would allow a select few in a party to determine a candidate.

Adoption:

Native American adoption: Lawmakers failed to pass a state version of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. HB40 would have offered protections for Indigenous children going through adoption or foster care. The federal law was in response to the systematic removal of Native American children from homes, often without cause. Indigenous leaders representing the eight federally recognized tribes in Utah urged the Legislature to pass the bill.

Weird and Wacky:

New state flag: Utah has a new flag after both chambers passed SB31 on March 2. The bill moved quickly through the Senate in the opening days of the session but languished in the House for weeks before finally getting taken up in the final days. After some strong pushback from conservatives, sponsors Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, and Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, agreed to an amendment to keep the state’s current flag as the official “historic flag.” Both flags will be flown on state holidays and during the legislative session.

Official mushroom and crustacean: Lawmakers green-lit a state mushroom (the porcini with HB92) and a state crustacean (the brine shrimp with HB137). Foragers and Great Salt Lake enthusiasts rejoice!

Medical psilocybin: Psychedelic mushrooms will have to wait. SB200 by Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, would have authorized the production and medical use of psilocybin (AKA magic mushrooms) in the state.

Halloween observed: SCR5 would have encouraged a uniform celebration of Halloween in Utah on the last Friday of October, rather than the 31st calendar day. The proposal failed on a vote in the Senate on Feb. 10.

Corrected: March 3, 2023 at 4:55 PM MST
An earlier version of this story referred to an earlier version of SB93 and misstated its effects on rules for changing birth certificates.
Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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