Despite rumblings of a possible early adjournment, the Utah Legislature’s sprint through its 45-day general session came to an end right at midnight Friday night after a dramatic surprise on the Senate floor that spurred furious and emotional debate.
In the final three hours of the session, first the Utah Senate then the House voted to approve a new version of HB11, a bill that was altered to enact an all-out ban on transgender girls from competing in high school sports.
Immediately after the Senate’s vote, Gov. Spencer Cox vowed to veto the bill, saying he was “stunned,” like other lawmakers, as a ban was never discussed in negotiations over the bill that began as legislation to create a commission to deal with transgender athlete issues.
It was an emotional twist that dominated the final hours of the 2022 session, which was otherwise characterized by debates over a wide range of weighty issues — from COVID-19 restrictions to water conservation in the drought-stricken state.
In the first days of the session, lawmakers started out by once again flexing control over local COVID-19 restrictions in the early days of the session even as Utah’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were peaking from the omicron surge.
From there, lawmakers wrestled over how to spend the state’s over $25 billion budget while once again prioritizing tax cuts, this year giving $193 million back to Utahns.
Other issues dominated lawmakers’ time — including water conservation as Utah and the West remains gripped by a record-breaking drought, and debates over Utah’s education funding and policies.
Here’s a breakdown of the biggest hot-button issues that highlighted the 2022 session.
Utah lawmakers exert swift control over COVID-19 restrictions
They wasted no time. In the first week of the session mid-January, both the House and the Senate took advantage of their self-granted power to trump state and local COVID-19 restrictions and swiftly passed a joint resolution to terminate mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties.
It was the first of several pieces of legislation to further limit local COVID-19 requirements. Lawmakers also approved HB182, a bill to close the legal loophole Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall used to issue mask mandates, including in schools.
That same bill also makes it crystal clear that state facilities, including the Capitol, do not fall under a local health department’s jurisdiction for health orders, such as mask mandates. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Gov. Spencer Cox clashed over differing interpretations of the law a week before the 2022 session began.
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The shadow of Utah’s COVID-19 cases loomed over the early days of the session, with some lawmakers, including Senate President Stuart Adams, testing positive for COVID-19. But as the session progressed, Utah’s cases began to decline. In February, the governor announced Utah would transition from “an emergency posture and into a manageable risk model.”
Controversy over vaccine mandates or passports also hung over the session as lawmakers advanced legislation to stop cities and businesses from implementing their own requirements. In oft-contentious committee hearings, some lawmakers argued any vaccine requirement is an infringement on personal liberties, while others said businesses should be able to take precautionary steps as they see fit.
Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, repeatedly railed against having to “show your papers” to enter public spaces, and sponsored HB60 which would have created a protected class of people based on vaccination status.
Efforts to limit the bill to the current COVID-19 pandemic failed as the bill passed the House last month, despite fears that it could make it difficult to respond to future pandemics. During a heated Senate committee hearing, senators recommended the bill with a change that still allows employers to require “proof of immunity status,” including a previous infection as specified by a doctor’s note.
The so-called “natural immunity” from COVID-19 was the subject of another push by lawmakers to exempt recently infected individuals from existing vaccine mandates. Although most businesses would be prohibited from enacting mandates under HB60, some health care workers and federal contractors are required to be vaccinated.
HB60 passed the House and a Senate committee, but time ran out on the final day of the session before the full Senate could consider it.
Lawmakers passed HB63 which would clarify that “natural immunity” satisfies the requirements under a vaccine mandate and prohibits employers from maintaining a record of COVID-19 test results for employees.
For Utah’s public schools, the session may be better defined by what didn’t happen.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, briefly proposed amending the Utah Constitutionto effectively eliminate the earmark that ensures income tax can only be used to fund public and higher education and services for children and people with disabilities. The proposal was abandoned for now.
However, lawmakers on the final day of the session approved SB211, which renamed the Education Fund to the Income Tax Fund, which House Majority Assistant Whip Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, said “is more descriptive of what this fund really is.” The bill had no committee hearing.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said one of his friends might describe SB211 as a “nothing burger.”
But in the face of the past two school years, which have been “pretty horrific,” renaming a fund that has been known for “a long, long time as the Education Fund.... just doesn’t feel right,” Briscoe said.
Several bills were introduced that sought greater transparency in school curriculum, educators’ lesson plans with at least one to allow parents to file lawsuits if policies were violated. Most of those attempts fell by the wayside, as well.
On the final day of the session, lawmakers approved HB374, which “prohibits elementary, junior high and high schools from having material that describe or depict pornographic or indecent acts,” said Senate floor sponsor, Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, would not apply to the health curriculum, only to school library materials, Weiler said, although the bill also includes language about instructional materials that “support a student’s learning in the school setting.”
The bill raises concerns for teachers, who worry they will be impeded from introducing instructional materials in their classrooms that are “innovative and reactionary and in the moment,” said Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, who is an educator.
Another education proposal, the Hope Scholarship, sought to create a scholarship program with public funding to help parents seek private education choices for their children. HB331, sponsored by Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, was defeated in the House by a vote of 22-53.
In terms of the budget, lawmakers raised the value of the weighted pupil unit and provided $12.2 million to help expand the numbers of schools that offer full-day kindergarten programs. It wasn’t the $47 million education stakeholders had sought to take the optional program statewide but it will help ensure it continues to move forward, according to Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden.
Lawmakers also appropriated $10 million to grant teachers bonuses, an acknowledgement of the additional burdens brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For fiscal year 2023, the Utah Legislature increased the education budget by $383 million in ongoing revenue, a 9% increase over the previous year.
Wilson said he was “really pleased” with the funding effort on behalf of Utah’s public schools this legislative session.
“An increase of 9% plus in public education year, that’s a lot of money. We in many ways can never pay our teachers enough...We’ve done a big investment there, but we’ll keep at it. I mean, there’s more work to be done for sure,” he said.
The last 20 years in Utah and the rest of North America have been the driest in 12 centuries, and the shrinking Great Salt Lake grabbed the attention of Utah lawmakers in a historic fashion this session, funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to water-related issues.
The following bills received widespread support from both the House and Senate, and are awaiting Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s signature.
In what lawmakers say is the most comprehensive bill for the lake to date, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, established the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Program, which would oversee a $40 million water trust tasked with identifying conservation and sustainability projects.
While Wilson’s HB410 would provide the funding, Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, wants to ensure coordination among water agencies by creating the Great Salt Lake Watershed Integrated Water Assessment. Spurred by $5 million in initial funding, HB429 is an effort to close data gaps, develop an overall water budget for the lake and look for opportunities in the watershed to improve water management.
Calling it “the most important piece of water legislation that we will see,” Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City, wants to add a third option, HB33, to Utah’s long-standing “use it, or lose it” water rights by allowing “sovereign lands,” to be designated as a beneficial use for water. That designation includes the Great Salt Lake.
Upstream, two bills that weigh heavily on the Utah Lake’s future passed through both the House and Senate — HB240, Utah Lake Amendments and HB232, the Utah Lake Authority.
Sponsored by Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, the Utah Lake Authority would have more power than the current Utah Lake Commission, and would work to improve the health of the lake, while producing “economic, aesthetic, recreational, environmental, and other benefits for the state.”
A response to a controversial proposal to dredge the lake and build human-made islands, Orem Rep. Kevin Stratton’s Utah Lake Amendments adds several extra hoops any group will have to jump through before going through with a remediation project that would require the state to hand over land. That includes getting approval from the Utah Senate, House and governor.
Among the most significant actions lawmakers approved with direct impacts on water conservation:
- $250 million to meter secondary water connections statewide by 2030.
- $5 million for the nation’s first statewide turf buy-back program.
- $20 million for making agricultural watering more efficient.
- Requiring state-owned buildings constructed after May 2022 to have no more than 20% turf.
Concern over water scarcity and a mild winter with few inversions diminished much of the action that could have come on air pollution.
A proposed carbon tax never gained traction and an effort to make Utah Transit Authority ridership permanently fare free — like it was for February — stalled.
That was the same fate of a proposal to grant tax credits for the purchase of electric vehicles, although lawmakers did fund $3 million to boost rural infrastructure.
The state appropriated $70 million for homelessness and housing this year.
But that $70 million — the $55 million for deeply affordable housing competitive grants combined with $15 million for housing preservation — still falls far short of the $128 million the governor recommended in his budget for housing and homelessness programs.
Meanwhile, other affordable housing initiatives did not get prioritized in the budget. HB462 sought to allocate more than $100 million to the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund and the Rural Housing Fund.
The Legislature, however, still passed HB462, which requires cities with public transit hubs to develop plans for moderate- and low-income housing within a one-mile radius of those locations.
When it comes to homelessness, leaders around the state agree that it is a crisis but can’t seem to settle on how best to solve it. As complicated as the issue is, “not in my backyard” attitudes have further gummed up the works as no one seems keen to provide homeless shelter space in their communities.
HB440, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is meant to foster cooperation between cities in Salt Lake County by asking them to submit a plan to the state’s office of homelessness for providing adequate emergency shelter space well in advance of cold winter weather.
If no plan is submitted or deemed sufficient, the bill has a “plan B,” Eliason said, where the state would flex the capacity at existing shelters to meet the expected demands.
The problem is, people on both sides are opposed to the bill, and for different reasons.
Last week, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall told the House Health and Human Services Committee that the bill doesn’t actually provide an incentive to other cities to step up, because they know the state is able to flex capacity to meet the need.
On the other hand, Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, argued on the House floor on Tuesday that cities like his should be exempted from having to submit a plan because the city already spends plenty of money on law enforcement and other homeless mitigation efforts.
HB440 received final approval from the Legislature on Thursday.
Repeal of Utah’s death penalty failed yet again
Before the 2022 session began, the effort to repeal and replace Utah’s capital punishment statute had momentum.
A family member of the victims of one of Utah’s most infamous murders positioned herself as a powerful voice in favor of repeal. Sharon Wright Weeks, the sister and aunt of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, teamed up with two influential conservative lawmakers spearheading this year’s bill, HB147, which would have replaced Utah’s death penalty with a new sentence of 45 years to life in prison. Several county prosecutors also lined up in support of the bill.
But like two other death penalty repeal efforts in recent years, this year’s bill hit a dead end. It didn’t make it beyond its first hurdle in a House committee.
There, the bill’s opponents came out in force. In an emotional and graphic hearing, other Utah murder victims’ family members relived the gruesome details of their loved ones’ killings. Plus, ahead of the hearing, two of the House’s top leaders expressed their personal opposition to the bill, setting it up for a challenge. It failed on a 5-6 vote in committee.
In an annual cleanup of election and voting laws, lawmakers have advanced a handful of changes that will impact Utahns at the polls this year. Two bills endorsed by Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson received broad support this year, and proponents say they will help improve election security and transparency.
Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, calls HB387 his “belt and suspenders” bill to add transparency to Utah’s elections. The bill requires that poll watchers be allowed to stand within 6 feet to watch the counting of votes. It also directs county clerks to report canvassing updates regularly throughout the pre- and post-election process.
Lawmakers passed HB387, as well as HB313, requiring voter IDs for mail-in ballots and mandating 24-hour video surveillance of unattended ballot drop boxes. Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, argued against the surveillance requirement, saying it doesn’t add significant security to justify the $500,000 price tag.
Misinformation rears its divisive head
Committee hearings are an essential part of the democratic process, where constituents can meet lawmakers face to face and argue their case for or against policy proposals.
This year, public comments have been seasoned with the undeniable zest of misinformation — seemingly propagated by a handful of fringe organizations online.
Bills about vaccine mandates and mail-in voting have — predictably — drawn crowds with unfounded fears of forced vaccinations and stolen elections. More surprising are the seemingly mundane subjects that have sparked similar panic.
In January, senators received a “litany” of comments from constituents who incorrectly believed that a bill to provide workers’ compensation benefits to firefighters would actually let health officials call on the National Guard to put unvaccinated individuals in concentration camps.
A bill to expand a digital driver’s license pilot program drew a similarly agitated crowd last month, with apocalyptic warnings of “the mark of the beast.”
Another year, another Utah Inland Port Authority bill
Every year since the Utah Legislature’s controversial, rushed creation of the Utah Inland Port Authority — a body charged with building a global trade hub on 16,000 acres in Salt Lake City’s west side — lawmakers have considered bills to make tweaks.
This year’s bill, HB443, was approved with widespread support by both the House and Senate. It would dissolve Salt Lake City’s voting membership on the Utah Inland Port Authority Board in exchange for a 25-year contract and a larger share of future tax increment within the port’s jurisdiction.
Even though the bill would strip Utah’s capital city of voting power on the board, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and the City Council supported the bill as a result of good faith negotiations with state leaders to better position Salt Lake City in control of its future tax revenue.
New limits on media access, transparency
Journalists are now barred from freely asking questions of lawmakers on the House and Senate floors thanks to a new set of rules both bodies approved despite protests from media representatives about transparency and public access.
The Senate moved on its rule first, SR1. The rule stipulates that credentialed news media are only allowed access to the Senate floor, hallways and lounge if they have permission from a senator or the Senate media designee and must “promptly exit the designated area after completing the specific interview.”
The House, later in the session, approved a nearly identical rule, HR2.
Lawmakers also chipped away at Utah’s open records law in order to shield certain police records.
Despite warnings from media that it would further damage public trust, Utah lawmakers approved a bill to protect Garrity statements from public records requests.
If signed into law by the governor, HB399 would create a new exemption to Utah’s public records law for compelled government employee statements that are given as part of an investigation into possible wrongdoing.
Gov. Spencer Cox said on KSL NewsRadio early Friday he planned to sign the bill.
Is Utah ready for Hollywood?
Lawmakers passed a bill that would extend the cap on film incentives for productions shot in rural Utah, allocating $12 million from the state’s education fund. It’s unclear whether Cox will sign SB49 — he called incentives “one of the worst returns on investment that we have with state taxpayer dollars,” but told the Deseret News on Friday that he likes how it targets rural Utah.
“If it does get passed, then we’ll make a decision,” he said.
Actor Kevin Costner lobbied lawmakers to pass the bill, and said that if it passes, he’ll likely film his five-part western “Horizon” in Utah. The state’s current incentive program is underfunded, the film industry says, and can only provide a tax rebate to one high caliber production at a time.