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Legislative Recap Week Seven: Abortion, Education Spending & Cowboy Poetry

Photo of the Utah state capitol building at night
Brian Albers
After a hectic week of passing more than 200 bills, the Utah Legislature wrapped up its session Thursday night.

Utah's legislative session wrapped up Thursday night. Lawmakers passed a $20 billion budget and 510 bills over the past 45 days. 

This week of the session is the most hectic. Lawmakers passed more than 200 bills in the last two days. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with political reporter Sonja Hutson to get a roundup. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: So something really unusual happened this week in the Legislature. All six women senators walked out of the Senate chamber in protest during a vote on an abortion bill.

Sonja Hutson: Yeah, so what this bill does is it requires someone who's getting an abortion to get an ultrasound beforehand. And in addition to that, it requires the person giving the ultrasound to describe the fetal images on the screen and also make the heartbeat of the fetus audible. There are a lot of really pro-life lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but even some of them said this went too far. 

In this kind of spontaneous action, all of the women senators, both Republican and Democrat, got together and said, “We're gonna walk out and not participate in the vote."

There were four Republican senators who did break with their party and voted against it. The bill still passed the Senate, although when it came back to the House, it ended up getting circled and lawmakers just left it on the board to die by the end of the session.

CB: What did the men in the chamber have to say after the women walked out like that?

SH: Several of the men who voted against it — Republican men in particular — talked about being torn between being pro-life and being anti-government intrusion. 

Sen. Daniel Thatcher [R-West Valley City] actually made this really emotional speech on the House floor about how he felt so strongly that he needed to protect life and felt that not doing everything to prevent abortion was abhorrent. But he also felt so strongly that the government should not force this medically unnecessary procedure on women and ultimately, his anti-government intrusion side of the equation won out and he voted against it.

CB: Let's switch to a change to education funding. Under the deal struck between lawmakers and education stakeholders, education money could be spent to support children and people with disabilities. What does the education community get in return?

SH: So in return for having some of their money being used for other programs outside of education, they get a stabilization fund, which is basically like a reserve fund they can dip into in times of economic downturn. 

There will be funding increases that keep pace with inflation, as well as a 6% per pupil funding increase. And this legislation is a constitutional amendment, so it still needs to be approved by voters in November. 

CB: I want to point us towards sort of the elephant in the room — coronavirus. It's affected so much across the country, but how did it affect the Utah Legislature in the past week?

SH: The House was deemed a handshake free zone to help prevent the spread of the virus and it also really impacted them the most economically.

The stock market's been having a lot of trouble recently and because of that lawmakers felt they wanted to hold on to some of their reserve funding a little more, and so they did not issue a tax cut this session. 

The other really big impact that it has is that the budget is based on revenue projections. They could change because when they were making those revenue estimates, there was no outbreak of coronavirus, like there is now. So because some of those underlying assumptions may change, lawmakers might have to come back in a special session and redo the budget.

CB: When could we see that special session?

SH: Legally, they have to wait at least 30 days after the end of the session and after that we don't really know. But probably before the new fiscal year starts at the end of June.

CB: I know this has been a heavy week for Utahns and the rest of the country. But from what I've heard, lawmakers were still able to have some fun. After they adjourned, what did you see?

SH: I stuck around until the bitter end at about 1 a.m. There were a lot of antics on the House floor after they adjourned. There was a quartet of representatives singing a 2020 session themed song, a representative reciting cowboy poetry and some really hilarious videos about the lives of interns and all the bills that got stuck in the Rules Committee. 

And that video actually parodied “The Breakfast Club,” which was pretty funny.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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