The Utah Legislature wrapped up its 2020 legislative session Thursday night — defined by big changes to education funding, debates over abortion bills and polygamy, a global pandemic and a tight general fund that left many bills unfunded.
“I applaud the legislature for the good work,” said Gov. Gary Herbert during a press conference on the last night of the session. “We've got great leadership in the House and the Senate, which has brought people together to kind of smooth out some of the rough bumps.”
Lawmakers passed an estimated 510 bills, about 60 bills less than last year, and approved a $20 billion budget that focused on education, mental health and increases to public employee salaries.
While state leaders started out with a loss by repealing tax reform, they were proud that by the end of the session they’d succeeded in passing another solution to revenue imbalance: a change to education funding. It’s a compromise between lawmakers and the education community.
“We've had some significant wins here,” Herbert said, calling the education deal a “phoenix rising out of the ashes of tax reform. It’s really nothing short of a miracle.”
The deal still needs approval from voters, though.
The tone of the session shifted during the last week as the COVID-19 outbreak started to take hold in Utah. The House became a “handshake-free” zone and economic volatility killed a potential tax break.
Senate leadership also said, due to COVID-19, the revenue projections used to make the budget could change. That means the legislature could end up back in a special session soon to redo the budget.
“Our budget, we’re concerned about that,” Senate President Stuart Adams said. “So I think we may be back for a special session … We’re just keeping our calendars open.”
Here are some the bills lawmakers did (and didn’t) pass this session:
✔️ Tax Reform Repeal: Lawmakers passed tax reform in December in an attempt to fix the state’s budget “structural imbalance.” Republican leadership has said income tax revenue, which is earmarked for education, has grown in recent years, and sales tax revenue, which feeds the general fund, has slowed as Utah shifts to a more service-based economy. After a citizen referendum to repeal tax reform appeared to have gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, lawmakers voted to repeal it themselves during the first week of the session. This meant the state had a tax revenue “structural imbalance” again.
Lopsided Revenue Numbers: When legislative leaders announced more than $900 million in new revenue, almost all of it was from income tax and earmarked for education. Lawmakers had $80 million in the General Fund to fund all bills outside education, much tighter than usual, and many bills did not get funded at all.
✔️ Education Funding Change: Lawmakers and education stakeholders struck up a deal that aimed to address the structural imbalance while stabilizing funding for education. It was a two-piece legislation package. One piece was a constitutional amendment that allows education money to be spent to support children and people with disabilities. That passed the legislature, but still needs to be signed by the governor and approved by voters in November. In exchange for giving up some funding, education stakeholders agreed to a bill that puts $75 million into a new rainy-day account and increases per pupil spending by 6%. That bill only goes into effect if the constitutional amendment does. Both pieces of legislation have passed the legislature and are awaiting the governor’s signature or veto.
✔️ Mental Health: In a tight budget year, lawmakers chose to prioritize mental health and allocated more than $22 million of ongoing and one-time money to bills addressing it. One bill expands an alternative mental health crisis intervention system of phone lines, mobile outreach teams and receiving centers. The idea is to avoid potentially traumatic situations like riding in an ambulance, being arrested or sitting in an emergency room. Another creates a housing assistance program for some people released from the Utah State Hospital and creates at least one “assertive community treatment team,” which is a mobile response team made up of medical professionals.
✔️ E-cigarettes: At the outset of the session, the governor and lawmakers held a press conference pushing several bills aimed at cracking down on teen vaping. The legislature passed a bill that requires schools to ban e-cigarettes and allows them to confiscate and destroy them. By the end of the session, several others had been watered down or killed. H.B. 23, which passed the legislature, raises the smoking and vaping age to 21 more quickly than the law originally called for and puts more restrictions on shops that sell e-cigarettes. It was amended to give vape shops more time to comply with the law. S.B. 37, which would increase taxes on e-cigarettes, passed the legislature, but the proposed tax rate was lowered by roughly 30% throughout the process. ❌ The House voted down a resolution encouraging local health boards to limit the number of tobacco retail permits the health department could give out. The House did pass H.B. 118, but a Senate committee killed it. It would have required that all e-cigarettes be sold in shops closed to people under 21.
✔️ Coronavirus: The legislature approved $16 million in funding for the state’s COVID-19 response, as well as $24 million to prevent the virus’ spread among seniors. In order to prevent spread at the Capitol, the House dubbed itself a “handshake-free” zone. The virus impacted tax cuts, too. Legislative leadership cited market volatility from the coronavirus and from changes to oil prices as a reason not to spend money from its working rainy day fund on tax cuts.
❌ Tanning For Minors: A bill banning minors from using tanning beds, even with their parent’s permission, passed the House. But, it was held by a Senate committee and sent back to the Senate Rules Committee, where it ultimately died.
✔️ Bail Reform: Judges would have to release people before their trial using the “least restrictive condition” appropriate to their case under a bill passed by the Utah legislature this session. Those conditions could be things like weekly check-ins, ankle monitors and drug testing — or cash bail. Judges would have to take into account public safety and the defendant’s likelihood to appear in court.
✔️ Transparency: Lawmakers considered bills aimed at shedding light on misconduct within Utah’s jails and prison. S.B. 240, which the legislature passed, requires county jails to report more information on inmate deaths to the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), including the gender and race of the deceased inmate and the law enforcement agency that arrested them. S.B. 185 would make operating procedures of all correctional facilities public. But, there are exceptions for security policies. The Senate passed it minutes before the session ended.
✔️ Prosecution Of Minors: The legislature passed a bill banning prosecution of kids under 12, unless they’re accused of serious crimes like rape or murder. Instead, children would go through restorative justice programs that include things like community service and apologizing to the victim. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, said the state jails dozens of kids every year.
✔️ Affordable Housing: In a tight budget year, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, was impressed that legislative leaders allocated $10 million to his affordable housing bill that would go towards the production of private, affordable housing. The bill originally called for $35 million to go towards housing production and rental assistance. A bill by Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, originally required state agencies to mitigate the loss of a moderate income housing unit if they had caused the loss. That could include providing a replacement unit or paying a mitigation fee. But, the Senate changed the bill to just require a report of moderate income housing units lost because of action by an agency. The modified bill passed the legislature.
❌ Homelessness Czar: The House passed a bill to create a state homelessness director, who would coordinate homeless services throughout the state and approve all funding for them. But, the Senate voted down the bill in the final minutes of the legislative session.
✔️ Abortion: Three pro-life bills moved through the legislature this session, taking cues from past and anticipated future court rulings around the country. One is a ban on all elective abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. There are exceptions in cases of rape, incest, when the mother’s life is in danger and when the fetus has a lethal abnormailty. It passed the Legislature. Another successful bill requires a doctor to ask someone who’s had a miscarriage or abortion whether they would like the fetus to be buried or cremated. The person doesn’t have to choose, but the medical facility does have to dispose of the fetus through burial or cremation — not as medical waste. ❌ The most controversial abortion bill was one requiring someone seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound beforehand. The person performing the ultrasound would have to describe the fetal images and make the heartbeat audible. The patient could look away and ask that the heartbeat sound be turned off. When the Senate voted on the bill, all women senators — democrat and republican — walked off the floor in protest. It passed there but the House declined to vote on it before the clock ran out during the last night of the session.
❌ Transgender Minors: Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, had originally planned to run a bill banning hormone therapy and surgery for transgender people under 18. But, the second to last week of the session, he introduced a bill that required a review of scientific research on puberty blocking drugs. The House voted down the bill.
✔️ Polygamy: The Utah legislature unanimously passed a bill essentially decriminalizing consensual polygamy. It knocked the charge down from a felony to an infraction, but the charge remains a felony if it’s connected to charges of things like kidnapping and child abuse.
✔️ Inland Port: Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, ran another bill this year making changes to the inland port, which passed the Legislature. It gives seats on the Inland Port Board to the Salt Lake City Mayor’s office and Magna township. It also encourages environmentally friendly development at the port.
❌ Oil and Gas Industry: Refineries who have been slow to start producing lower-emission Tier 3 fuel would still be eligible for a tax break under a bill passed by the Utah Senate. The original bill gave the refineries almost 3 ½ more years to start producing Tier 3. An hour before the session ended, the House changed the bill to cut that time down to 18 months. The Senate agreed and the bill passed the legislature. ✔️ Another bill, which was passed by the Legislature, tried to address what a 2019 audit called an “alarming” lack of oversight at the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. It would change the appeals process and create a standardized schedule of fines the division could impose.
✔️ Electric Vehicles: A major utility, like Rocky Mountain Power, could create an electric vehicle charging network across the state, if Gov. Herbert signs H.B. 396. The utility would be capped at spending $50 million on the project, and can recoup the cost of building the infrastructure through electricity bills. But the bill’s sponsor says customers likely won’t pay more because Rocky Mountain Power is ending charges related to a different program.
✔️ Proposition 4: Backers of a new anti-gerrymandering law were worried that it would be repealed when negotiations over changes to it broke down between Proposition 4’s backers and legislative leaders. The law, approved by voters in 2018, creates an advisory redistricting commission that draws maps for congressional and legislative districts. Those maps have to be approved by the Legislature. But, the two parties were able to move past their differences and come up with a compromise that kept a ban on partisan gerrymandering intact. Proposition 4 was the last of three 2018 ballot measures that the legislature made changes to.
❌ Distracted Driving: Debate was fierce over a bill that would make the state’s texting ban even stricter. It would make even holding a cell phone illegal. Drivers can use hands free technology while driving, and can either swipe or tap their cellphones to activate that technology. After passing the House, and then the Senate on second reading, it was sent to the rules committee where it ultimately died.
❌ ERA: A resolution ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment was sent to the House Rules Committee on the first day of the session — and never left.
❌ Vaping Ban: A full ban on e-cigarettes stayed in the House Rules Committee for the last three weeks of the session and never saw the light of day.