Here's What Utah Lawmakers Did In 45 Days
The 2018 Utah Legislature drew to a close on Thursday night, wrapping up their 45 day annual session with a $16.7 billion budget that increases funding for education, overhauls public transit and continues the fight against homelessness.
Legislators started the session with more than 1,200 requested bill files. They ended up passing 534 of them — one fewer than last year’s record number. Several issues that stymied the Legislature in recent years — including Medicaid expansion and medical cannabis — easily passed, spurred by several popular ballot initiatives making their way to voters this fall.
Here’s a look at some of the most notable legislation that lawmakers passed this year.
BALLOT BUSTERS & ELECTION LAWS
There are six different groups gathering signatures to put a handful of citizen-led initiatives on the November ballot, and lawmakers have attempted to undercut some of them.
After four years of trying, lawmakers finally passed legislation to very narrowly legalize medical marijuana in Utah. The bill would extend a “right to try” medical cannabis to terminally ill patients and direct the state Department of Agriculture to grow the marijuana plants. The Utah Patients Coalition opposed the bill, saying it is too narrow and “unlikely to help.” The Coalition is running an initiative to let voters decide on less restrictive legalization this November.
We stopped a $700 million tax increase — acting Senate Majority Leader Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal on the Our Schools Now compromise bill
Lawmakers cut a deal late in the session with a group running a ballot initiative seeking more funding for schools. The group — called Our Schools Now — was seeking a 0.45 percent increase in both state sales and income taxes to funnel more than $700 million to Utah’s public schools, which consistently rank near the bottom nationally in per-pupil spending. Utah’s legislative leaders, hoping to avoid the tax hike, instead agreed with Our Schools Now on a different tactic: let voters decide whether to raise the gasoline tax by a dime per gallon to fund education. As part of the deal, lawmakers also agreed to freeze property tax rates for five years. Combined, the measures are expected to raise about $375 million for Utah schools — half of what Our Schools Now was originally hoping for.
That bill also included a number of other tax reform provisions. Lawmakers admit average taxpayers will probably only see a slight reduction in state income taxes, but they’re still calling it a win. “We stopped a $700 million tax increase,” said acting Senate Majority Leader Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal. Lawmakers estimate by heading off the initiative, they’re saving taxpayers more than $800 a year in additional taxes.
Lawmakers also approved a number of measures expanding voter access, including a bill to allow 17-year-olds to vote in a primary election if they will turn 18 before the general election. Another measure allows drivers to more easily register to vote when renewing a driver’s license. Cities will also get the opportunity to try out a new state-approved pilot program for ranked-choice voting.
Three controversial election law bills failed to pass before the clock ran out. In the final days of the session, Republican lawmakers proposed delaying the implementation dates of ballot initiatives approved by voters, allowing Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to ignore a recent and contentious bylaw change by the Utah Republican Party that targets candidates who gather signatures to appear on the primary ballot, and a bill that would have repealed the 2014 compromise which implemented the dual-path to the primary ballot. That bill would have also shortened the period in which candidates can declare their intent to gather signatures from nearly three months to just one week in January.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE & HOMELESSNESS
I don't think we did enough — House Speaker Greg Hughes
The Legislature is kicking in another $10.5 million to Operation Rio Grande, the ongoing drug and crime crackdown in downtown Salt Lake. An effort to tackle Utah’s affordable housing crisis, however, quickly became watered down.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, introduced the measure, originally intending for cities that don’t host homeless shelters or have enough affordable housing units to help pay for shelters. That part was removed and instead the proposal will swipe a portion of cities’ sales tax to fund homeless shelters.
“I don’t think we did enough,” House Speaker Greg Hughes said of housing issues.
A Democratic proposal for a $100 million affordable housing bond died before reaching the House floor, though Hughes supported it as well.
Lawmakers approved a handful of provisions they say will help protect victims of domestic violence, including expanding access to restraining orders for people who are not married but in abusive relationships. It would also require law enforcement to extend help to those they suspect may be in an abusive situation. Another would allow the use of ankle monitors on repeat offenders and would stiffen penalties as well. Both measures were prompted by the murder of a Sandy mom and her son who were killed by an ex-partner on the way home from school.
Utah has the highest rate of jail deaths in the nation. A bill seeks to make those jails issue annual reports now on the number and manner of in-custody deaths. This was also prompted by news reports of several inmates who died while detoxing in detention facilities in recent years.
A host of bills emerged this year stemming from the fallout over the special election in the 3rd Congressional District, which set off a battle between the Legislature and the governor’s office over constitutional power. This year legislators introduced an amendment to the state constitution to allow them to call themselves into a special session — a measure that voters will now have to approve this fall. Legislative leaders were miffed last year that Gov. Herbert refused to call them into a special session to create parameters for the special election triggered after former Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned.
Another measure would force the Attorney General to release his legal opinions to the lawmakers, a move resulting from Gov. Herbert’s decision to block Attorney General Sean Reyes from giving his opinion on the legality of that race.
A third bill would allow the Legislature to intervene directly in lawsuits against the state — a power normally reserved for the Attorney General. Lawmakers say they have the right to defend their own laws in court.
Herbert said he’ll be taking a hard look at any bills dealing with separation of power, but did not regret setting up last year’s special election without their input.
Those are big wins for the public, for infrastructure and our transportation systems going forward — Senate Pres. Wayne Niederhauser
Utah’s population is expected to double over the next 50 years. Lawmakers passed some bills they say will help manage such explosive growth, particularly regarding transportation. One wouldoverhaul the Utah Transit Authority’s governing body and rename the agency Transit District of Utah. Another would kick-start anelectronic road tolling system.
“Those are big wins for the public, for infrastructure and our transportation systems going forward,” said Senate Pres. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.
Niederhauser ran the road tolling bill, which he hopes will offset the $600 million the state pays annually to fund road maintenance. The gas tax doesn’t cover those needs, and Niederhauser says expanded road tolls will fill the gap.
A more controversial bill would create a land use authority to oversee development of about 20,000 acres in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant. City leaders called it a land grab and criticized the rushed process.
“The bill still leaves the city with the obligation to provide municipal services to the area, such as public safety and street maintenance, without a revenue source to pay for these additional services,” said Mayor Jackie Biskupski.
But Republican lawmakers say it’s a big development project that they don’t want to mess up. "This is an issue that needs Salt Lake City, it needs Salt Lake County, it needs the state of Utah," said House sponsor Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, before the bill passed.
Gov. Herbert also got his wish for facilities upgrades at Utah’s Winter Olympic venues as the state prepares another hosting bid. Lawmakers approved $8.5 million for those buildings.
HEALTH CARE, SUICIDE & MEDICAID
A spike in teen suicides sent alarm bells across the state and prompted lawmakers and the governor’s office to convene a task force to look at what was behind the increase. Recommendations from that task force and another commission resulted in several bills to increase resources for mental illness. One piece of legislation will require all of the state’s suicide hotlines to be staffed 24/7. It was dubbed “Hannah’s Bill” after a Huntsville teen who committed suicide in 2014 after her call to a crisis line went unanswered.
The state is also applying for a number of Medicaid waivers to increase access to health care to low-income Utahns. One waiver will allow women on Medicaid to get IUDs, or intrauterine devices. The bill’s sponsor Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, said Utah was one of only seven states without this waiver, which would give the state a 3-to-1 return on investment by helping women avoid unplanned pregnancies.
Along those lines, lawmakers passed the biggest expansion to Medicaid in state history. That’s the federal health care program for low-income people. All Utahns under 100 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible for the program, but with a catch. The bill adds a work requirement. The legislation will first need the approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, which under President Trump has opened the door to work requirements, but not to lowering the eligibility cap, which currently requires coverage of up to 138 percent of individuals under the federal poverty level.
No session would be complete without a slew of honorary resolutions and political-messaging bills to appease niche constituencies. Utah lawmakers issued resolutions honoring six men and two women — from retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch and former Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham to the late Billy Graham and Thomas S. Monson.
A resolution to swap out the statue of early TV inventor Philo Farnsworth with the nation’s first female state lawmaker Martha Hughes Cannon grabbed headlines both near and far. Each state gets two representative statues at the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, and lawmakers, looking ahead to the centennial of women’s suffrage, said sending Martha could inspire more women to run for office. Philo’s statue will be shipped back to Utah and likely placed in a museum.
Another eleventh-hour bill would’ve renamed 600 miles of scenic highway in southern Utah after President Trump. Bill sponsor Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said the bill was a “thank you” to the president for his proclamations last December to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. The proposal received backlash from liberals and even some Republicans, who worried the renaming could be a little premature. It never made it the full House for a vote, but received more than its share of attention in the waning days of the session.
A SEX SCANDAL AND BILLS THAT PERISHED
Gov. Herbert said this session earned a “straight A,” but it wasn’t without its hiccups. Notably, less than halfway into the session, a southern Utah lawmaker, Jon Stanard, hastily resigned ahead of a tabloid expose by a prostitute alleging an affair with him. That and a bizarre “honeypot” plot involving another state senator added color to a topsy-turvy session.
Other bills that failed to gain passage include a ban on abortions of fetuses with Down syndrome, an amendment to the state constitution to abolish the Utah Board of Education and an effort to repeal the death penalty. A proposed bill to prohibit cities from banning plastic bags also failed by a large margin after a colorful debate on the House floor around 10:30 p.m. on the final night.
“That was a two candy bar kill,” said Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, after the legislation was soundly defeated.
After the Parkland, Fla., shooting, a nationwide conversation about gun violence put pressure on Utah’s Legislature to take a harder look at school safety. A last-minute bill to enact a “red flag” law to confiscate guns from people who pose a threat to public safety failed despite some initial support. Conservative lawmakers were concerned about infringing on the Second Amendment. Instead, they formed a School Safety Commission to study the issue further after the session ends.
It's been a more progressive legislature than we've seen in a long time, so from that perspective, I think it’s been very good — House Minority Leader Brian King
Even Democrats, who make less than 20 percent of the Legislature, were more pleased than usual this year. They said the Republican majority’s embrace of issues like Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana legalization and a tax hike to fund education moved the needle.
“It’s been a more progressive legislature than we’ve seen in a long time, so from that perspective, I think it’s been very good,” said House Minority Leader Brian King.
Speaker Greg Hughes and a wave of incumbents issued tearful goodbyes on their last day. Reflecting on his final session, Hughes said he’d miss his colleagues.
“It’s starting to sink in,” he said. “I’ve loved it. Absolutely it’s been the honor of my life to be part of this House and institution.”
Two longtime Senators announced their retirement Thursday night. Republicans Howard Stephenson and Peter Knudson - who have both served in the legislature since the early ‘90s said they will not seek re-election. They join a host of other lawmakers in both chambers who will leave the statehouse at the end of the year.
Gov. Gary Herbert will now have 20 days to sign or reject any of the legislation. Although he’s likely to issue a few vetoes this year, he said he’s overall pleased with lawmakers’ work.
“This may be the best legislative session I’ve been around in 12 years,” he said.