The Utah Legislature wrapped up its 45-day general session an hour early — just after 11 p.m. on Thursday — in a session defined by big fights over Medicaid expansion, tax reform and the direction of state government in a period of explosive population and economic growth.
The Legislature passed a record 573 bills this session and approved a record $19 billion budget that increases spending on air quality, suicide prevention and health care.
“There’s been some heavy lifting,” Gov. Gary Herbert said of the Legislature’s work. “These are not simple issues.”
At the end of his first session as Senate president, Sen. Stuart Adams said he was also pleased with how things turned out.
“Sessions are always hard and I think this is no exception. It’s 45 hard days, but it’s been very productive,” Adams said.
If the 2018 legislative session was defined by a power struggle between the Legislature and executive branch, the 2019 session could comparably be described as an fundamental clash between lawmakers and the people they represent.
That most notably came to a head in the first two weeks of the session. Lawmakers rewrote a voter-approved Medicaid expansion initiative — on the ballot as Proposition 3 — to cover fewer people at a higher initial cost. That move came as Republicans seek to remake the federal health insurance program for low-income people into what they consider a more fiscally conservative model.
Even after the ballot-initiative blow-up, so-called citizen lobbyists remained a near-constant presence at the Capitol, from an opening-day rally for Medicaid to sit-ins led by LGBTQ youth to protest changes to a bill banning controversial conversion therapy for children.
With new leadership in both the House and the Senate, lawmakers found plenty to fight about internally, too. An unsuccessful attempt to rewrite major portions of the state tax code erupted into a days-long budget stalemate that threatened to derail several hefty appropriations for things such as air quality, suicide prevention and education. An eleventh-hour compromise averted the gridlock, with lawmakers promising to revisit tax reform later this summer.
Here’s a look at some of the major bills that passed, along with a few things that didn’t:
- Medicaid — Nearly 53 percent of Utahns backed Proposition 3 in the November election, which would have expanded Medicaid to those making up to 138 percent of the poverty level (about $16,000 for an individual). But lawmakers balked at the price tag, claiming a companion tax increase voters also OK’d would not cover the expense. In came S.B. 96 by Sen. Allen Christensen, a critic of federal health insurance. His legislation offered a significantly scaled back version of expansion that would cover fewer Utahns at a higher cost initially. The move relies on a series of hard-to-get waivers from the federal government, which Republicans and the governor appear confident they will get. The brawl underlined what Democrats and some in the general public see as the Legislature’s heavy-handed approach in revising citizen-passed laws, coming just two months after lawmakers overhauled another ballot initiative — Proposition 2 for medical marijuana.
- Ballot Busters — Republicans made a host of other changes to the rules and processes governing ballot initiatives — the sum total of which will add hurdles for future initiatives to jump over. One by Rep. Brad Daw will delay the effective dates of voter-approved initiatives until after the Legislature meets each year, giving lawmakers time to modify or change parts of the law they don’t like. Notably, the Legislature did not attempt to modify Proposition 4, the initiative creating an independent commission to oversee political redistricting. Instead, lawmakers opted to hold off until next year, just ahead of the 2020 census.
- Abortion Bills — Two bills restricting abortion made it through both chambers before sine die. After adding a contingency clause, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee was successful this year with a bill similar to one she ran last year to ban abortions when there is a fetal diagnosis of Down syndrome. That contingency provision will delay the bill’s implementation until another court with jurisdiction over Utah (or more likely the U.S. Supreme Court) weighs in on it. Another bill to restrict abortions after 18 weeks of pregnancy also squeaked through — though Planned Parenthood said it will challenge the law in court. Conservative lawmakers said they want to send a clear message on Utah values in light of recent expansions of abortion rights in states like Virginia and New York.
- Hate Crimes — After a years-long struggle to toughen the state’s toothless hate crimes law, a bill by Sen. Daniel Thatcher finally succeeded in passing. The law will allow a judge to apply enhanced penalties to any person convicted of a crime that targets someone based on factors like race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The bill received an extra boost this year after headline-grabbing attacks on a Hispanic family and a LGBTQ man — as well as a tacit agreement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that it would not oppose the effort. A late addition to the bill to add “political expression” to the list of characteristics rubbed some minority members of the Legislature the wrong way, but the bill passed with healthy margins in both chambers.
- Conversion Therapy — A bill to ban conversion therapy — a controversial and widely-debunked form of psychotherapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity — went nowhere, even with two Republican co-sponsors. The bill received a grand unveiling with supporters including Equality Utah, but was changed substantially in a committee by Lisonbee. The Clearfield Republican also drew outrage from LGBTQ advocates after social media posts from 2013 in which she appeared to advocate for conversion therapy were publicized. Primary sponsor Rep. Craig Hall said he could not support Lisonbee’s changes to his bill and decided to shelve it until next year.
- Guns — A year after the fatal high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Utah lawmakers appeared no closer to finding consensus on gun reform issues, though a few minor measures eked through. Rep. Steve Eliason’s bill to give concealed-carry permit applicants a coupon to purchase a gun safe was one. Lawmakers also doubled down on Utah’s “Stand Your Ground” law, clarifying that a judge or prosecutor may not consider whether a person could have retreated in self-defense cases. Many other Democratic gun proposals petered out, including a bill to bar open carry within 500 feet of schools, a bill for universal background checks and a bill to create civil liability for someone who loans a weapons used in a crime (motivated by the death of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey). Two dueling bills to create a version of a “red flag” law to confiscate weapons from individuals who pose a threat met different fates. One supported by gun-rights activists — to allow family members to turn over weapons to law enforcement — passed. The other, giving judges and law enforcement more power to issue warrants to seize weapons, never got a hearing.
- Air Quality — Gov. Herbert asked for $100 million — the most ever — for measures to improve air quality, but lawmakers fell far short of that goal, appropriating about $29 million this year. Still, a cavalcade of environmental bills will throw more money at the problem in a variety of ways. Approximately $5 million will go toward a program to allow Utahns to swap their wood-burning stoves for natural gas appliances. Another bill will create more free-fare days for public transit during inversion spells. Still another measure, from longtime clean-air champion Rep. Patrice Arent, will crack down on people who idle their cars (but not without at least one warning).
- Coal Port Funding — In the final four days of the session, legislators passed S.B. 248 to free up $53 million to build a port, possibly in California or Mexico, to ship Utah coal. Rep. Mike McKell, said funding for air quality or schools won’t be affected because state mining revenues — not taxpayer dollars — are paying for the project. The good-government group Alliance for a Better Utah criticized the spending, but the measure will become law with the governor’s signature.
- Radioactive Waste — Lawmakers passed H.B. 220 to clear obstacles from EnergySolutions’ bid to bury large volumes of depleted uranium at its mile-square landfill in Tooele County. Herbert is expected to sign the bill, which would require the U.S. Energy Department to assume ownership of — and liability for — the waste before it’s disposed of in Utah.
- Inland Port — As the state begins work setting up a trading hub near the Salt Lake International Airport, Rep. Francis Gibson — House Majority Leader and port board member — passed a bill creating what he calls a “hub-and-spoke” model for the project. The idea is to create satellite offices in rural parts of the state to directly ship resources like coal and crops. Gibson argues by bypassing the main hub in Salt Lake, the strategy would keep shipping costs low and reduce air pollution from trucks along the Wasatch Front. Critics said the bill avoided larger concerns over the port, like transparency and environmental impacts. Lawmakers also passed a bill by Sen. Luz Escamilla to gather environmental data from communities near the port before it gets up and running. Days before the legislative session ended, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski filed a lawsuit against the port’s board.
- Gravel Pit — Lawmakers approved a bill, later killed it, then brought it back to life at the last minute that would prevent cities from passing zoning regulations restricting companies dealing with raw construction materials. The controversy stems from a dispute between gravel pit operator Geneva Rock and Draper residents who oppose the company’s proposal to expand its operations. Several Republicans arguing in favor of the bill said dust from gravel pits would not be as harmful as diesel emission if companies were forced to truck in their gravel instead.
- School Safety & More — Lawmakers say it was “a great year for public education.” A couple of lawmakers pushed a pair of ambitious bills seeking to increase school safety and mental health counseling for students. A large school safety bill by Rep. Ray Ward was pared down from its original $100 million to less than $1 million, but Rep. Steve Eliason was able to snag about $27 million for his companion bill to hire more counselors and therapists for Utah schools. A bill was also approved clarifying that teachers are allowed to teach about contraceptives in the classroom — as long as they balance effectiveness with risks.
- McCluskey Bills — A number of bills motivated by the shooting death of Lauren McCluskey at the University of Utah were debated this year, but Sen. Jani Iwamoto’s campus safety bill was one of the few to get through the session intact. The legislation requires campuses to create safety plans on how they plan to tackle sexual assault, stalking, dating and domestic violence cases reported on college campuses.
- Slavery — Voters may be surprised to find a question on their ballot in 2020 about slavery, the result of a bill run by Rep. Sandra Hollins, the Legislature’s sole black lawmaker. Utahns will be asked to revise the Utah Constitution to strike slavery and indentured servitude from the criminal code, which have lingered on the books long after they stopped being enforced.
- Automatic Expungement — Criminal justice reform advocates cheered the passage of a bill that would automatically expunge the records of people convicted of certain misdemeanors after anywhere from five to seven years. Utah is only the second state to pass a so-called “clean slate” law.
- Juvenile Justice —Another victory for criminal justice reform advocates was a bill requiring the state provide public defenders for all minors charged with crimes — ranging from misdemeanors to felonies.
- Marriage Age — Rep. Angela Romero had hoped to ban all child marriages in the state, raising the age limit to 18 with no exceptions. Instead, an approved compromise bill bars 15-year-olds from getting married, and requires 16- and 17-year-olds to seek permission from their parents and a juvenile court to get married. The bill also limits the age gap to seven years between any individual seeking to marry someone under the age of 18.
- Super Tuesday — After chaos and massive lines at presidential caucuses in 2016, the state appropriated just shy of $3 million for a presidential primary. The measure also moves up the date of the presidential contest to the first Tuesday in March — meaning Utah will join other states on Super Tuesday.
- Straight-Ticket Voting — Rep. Patrice Arent has proposed banning straight-ticket voting in Utah for several years, but after a small blue wave in Salt Lake County last November, the measure finally got some traction. However, the bill was still on the board when lawmakers adjourned, meaning straight-ticket voting stays.
- Beer — In the final days of the session, House Republicans watered down a bill to raise the alcohol limit on beer sold in grocery and convenience stores. Demand for such products has decreased in recent years as other states, including Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, have moved away from 3.2 alcohol by weight (ABW) beer. Sen. Jerry Stevenson had proposed raising the limit to 4.8 percent, which House lawmakers resisted. A compromise, unveiled and passed in the waning hours of the session, will raise the cap to 4.0 percent.
- Tobacco — While lawmakers proposed a bundle of bills aimed at reducing access to tobacco and e-cigarettes, particularly for minors, not all of them made it through. The Legislature raised the legal age to possess tobacco products from 19 to 21, but a bill to restrict the sale of vape pens in convenience stores and another to impose a hefty tax on e-cigarettes fizzled.
- Con-con — Utah became the 14th state to officially petition for a Constitutional Convention (sometimes called a Convention of the States, or Con-Con), according to the advocacy website ConventionOfStates.com. Conservative states are pushing for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution, specifically to rein in congressional spending and other federal government powers.
- Gender Neutral Constitution — Another question going before voters in 2020 will ask whether language in the state constitution should be gender neutral. The constitutional amendment sponsored by Sen. Deidre Henderson would replace words like “men,” “his” and “husband” with things like “person” and “his or her.”
- Daylight Saving — A perennial favorite of the Legislature, a stripped-down version of a bill to give Utahns the choice to switch permanently to Daylight Saving Time got through in the nick of time. The resolution backs federal legislation already in progress from U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop that would return the issue to the states to decide.
- Gila Monster — The final bill passed in the 2019 session names the Gila monster as Utah’s official state reptile, a symbol the state did not previously have. The measure was brought by Santa Clara Rep. Lowry Snow on behalf 7th graders in his red-rock district.
- Tax Reform — Despite calls by the governor and Republican leaders to find a solution to a structural imbalance in the state’s tax code, a proposal to both lower income and sales tax rates while adding new taxes to service-based businesses was met with stiff resistance. After pushback from businesses and members of both parties, leaders announced they would revisit the topic later this summer in a special session. The retreat came with the caveat that new spending requests would only be funded for one year to force lawmakers back to the table as they decide how to shore up the state’s sales tax base, which funds most government services. Lawmakers also held back a large chunk of their surplus to work on tax reform, promising a tax cut of at least $75 million.
- State Flag Flap — By no means the most important bill but maybe one of the most widely discussed, the state will form a commission this summer to review proposals to update Utah’s tired state flag (sometimes referred to as an “S.O.B.,” or seal on a bedsheet). Supporters say a more modern design would boost tourism, inspire young people and give Utahns something to brag about to neighboring states like Colorado and New Mexico, which already have snazzy flags of their own.
- The Vocal Minority — Two longshot bills dealing with perceived inequity in county representation met their demise in the last two weeks of the session. One bill from Rep. Kim Coleman would have allowed a county to split in two if the majority of the people on the secession side agree to it. Coleman, who represents West Jordan, said there is a “disenfranchisement that is palpable” in parts of southwest Salt Lake County. Another bill by Rep. Phil Lyman intended to limit small rural counties to three-person county commissions was driven by fear of outside influence from what he described as environmental groups. That legislation stalled out in a Senate committee.
KUER’s Judy Fahys contributed to this report.