Steve Griffin, KSL

2021 Utah Legislature recap: Lawmakers exert control over COVID-19 restrictions

By Katie McKellar, Deseret News | Posted - Mar. 6, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — After 45 days of grappling with a wide range of issues — from exerting legislative control over COVID-19 restrictions to how to spend the state's more than $23 billion budget to sorting through dozens of police reform bills — the Utah Legislature concluded its 2021 general session before midnight Friday.

It was a rare early ending to a legislative session, as lawmakers decided to wrap up business early even though a handful of bills remained to expire without action.

If you ask Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, it was a legislative session that marked "the year" for just about everything in spite of economic challenges from the pandemic.

"The list is long," Adams said in a media availability this week as lawmakers worked to put final touches on the budget. "This is the year for a tax cut. The year for education. The year for infrastructure. It's the year for affordable housing. ... It's been a heck of a year."

With over $1.5 billion in extra revenue to spend this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers tackled how to spend — and in some ways give back — taxpayer money. The better-than-expected revenues put Utah in an enviable position, legislative leaders said, with enough one-time cash and bonding power to fund more than $1.2 billion in infrastructure projects including $300 million toward double-tracking FrontRunner, $100 million in tax cuts for some Utahns who are retired, veterans or families with children, $50 million for affordable housing and homelessness, and over $400 million for education.

Rural Utah and economic development projects like the Utah Inland Port Authority also saw big commitments of cash. Lawmakers funded $115 million for an "infrastructure bank," a new mechanism to stash state money to be used as loans for future development, including $75 million for Utah Inland Port Authority projects on and off the Wasatch Front. The other $40 million of that money would be used mostly for rural broadband infrastructure not specifically related to the inland port.

Coronavirus: The elephant that never left the room

Even though lawmakers tackled many issues other than the pandemic, it was also certainly the year of COVID-19.

The virus loomed over the entire legislative session: Both as a physical threat to lawmakers and staff, and to what some Republican lawmakers considered a threat to legislative powers and personal liberty.

Gov. Spencer Cox, who inherited his predecessor and former boss' power struggle with a Legislature concerned about executive authority amid a pandemic, spent much of the session negotiating behind the scenes with lawmakers to temper two bills aimed at restricting emergency powers and spelling out the timeline to end Utah's pandemic-related restrictions — including an end date of April 10 for the statewide mask mandate.

In the final hours of the session just as both those bills won final legislative passage, Cox told reporters he supported the final version of both bills.

"Every day we're vaccinating upwards of 25,000 people," Cox said, adding that if most vulnerable Utahns are vaccinated, "then the restrictions don't matter as much."

"So we won't get through everyone before the potential mask mandate can go away, but we'll go through a lot of people," Cox said, adding that it's "important" to note that the mask mandate will still stay in place for gatherings over 50 people. And the governor said if the pandemic takes a turn, legislative bodies can enact new restrictions if need be.

Cox said his team worked hard to negotiate both HB294 and SB195, and were comfortable with where they ended up to balance executive powers while consenting to the Legislature's desire to codify its role as a legislative branch in a prolonged emergency.

"That's part of what they wanted. They wanted to be more involved in these discussions, and it's their power, not the governor's," Cox said. "And I think people have to understand that. The Legislature owns this now, and so that comes with that responsibility."

Lawmakers began the session masked up in a heavily guarded Capitol that was closed to the public for the first week after fears of violence in the wake of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol and amid national unease during the transition from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.

Throughout the session, lawmakers guarded themselves against COVID-19 with masks — though some were more lax than others — a handshake ban, plexiglass barriers between House desks, and daily COVID-19 testing of legislators and staff. It was the Legislature's first hybrid general session, with virtual and in-person options for both lawmakers and members of the public.

COVID-19 reared its head early in the session, with three cases detected in the first week among staff members. Soon after two lawmakers tested positive but isolated at home, where they cast their votes virtually. After those initial cases, no others have been detected on Capitol Hill, according to daily reports the Utah Department of Health provided to the Deseret News.

Midsession, the Deseret News and other media outlets reported House legislative leaders saw it necessary to deem nearly two dozen staffers as "critical" workers and gave them early access to COVID-19 vaccinations before the session started. Throughout the session, both House and Senate leaders said no lawmakers were vaccinated unless they qualified under the proper age groups and work requirements for the vaccine.

At least two lawmakers had ugly battles with COVID-19, which they caught before the session began. Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, missed almost two weeks after he was hospitalized with the disease, later participating virtually while on oxygen. Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, was absent from almost the entire session while he battled the virus, only appearing virtually the second-to-last day of the session from his intensive care unit hospital bed to a teary standing ovation from his fellow House colleagues.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told the Deseret News one of the hardest parts of this year's session was "my concern for Rep. Hawkins."

"There was a time where we were really worried about his ability to get out of the hospital," Wilson said. "That was probably the low point for me, is when he'd been in the ICU for two to three weeks, and we were really concerned he might not get out. Thank goodness he seems to be heading that direction."

Hawkins' absence and his surprise hello toward the end of the session marked the "lowlight" and the "highlight" of the session, Wilson said.

"It's interesting," Wilson said. "All this policy and all these billions of dollars. But the people side of what we do here is pretty important."

Dealing with several hot-button issues

A mixed bag of controversial issues kept lawmakers busy throughout the session, from a bill to make Utah the next state to allow concealed carrying of a firearm without a permit, to legislation to exclude transgender girls from participating on girls sports teams in public schools, to the fiery debate around Dixie State University's name change.

  • Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, sponsored HB60, the bill to drop the permit requirement for Utahns to carry a concealed firearm for people age 21 and older. HB60 sailed through the GOP-majority Legislature despite protests from Democrats, and the governor signed it soon after — something his predecessor Gov. Gary Herbert declined to do when lawmakers passed similar legislation years earlier. The law takes effect May 5.
  • LGBTQ advocates celebrated with hugs and tears when Rep. Kira Birkeland's HB302, which would have banned transgender athletes from girls sports in public schools, hit a dead end in a Senate committee. While Birkeland, R-Morgan, argued it was necessary to protect a "fair playing field" for girls, LGBTQ advocates including Equality Utah saw it as unnecessary, harmful and discriminatory for transgender Utahns. An emotional Cox also grappled with the bill and said he wouldn't sign it.
  • Lawmakers faced the painful debate over whether Dixie State University should change its name, and whether the Legislature should require it do so without the word "Dixie," a term known throughout the nation as tied to the Confederate South, Civil War and slavery.

Supporters of the change argued the name "Dixie" is harming the school's reputation and students as they seek graduate school admission and employment. Detractors argued the term had no relation to slavery in Utahns' minds, with the origin of the name coming from Latter-day Saint pioneers who came to the area to grow cotton.

House leaders supported HB278, which laid out a name change to explicitly rule out the use of the term "Dixie." But the bill ran into trouble in the Senate.

Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, who is also vice chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, fought to change the bill, arguing for the community's deep attachment to the Dixie name. Ultimately, the Senate approved a bill that doesn't expressly exclude a university name with Dixie in it but committed $500,000 to help preserve the institution's history if the DSU trustees and Utah Board of Higher Education recommend a name that does not include "Dixie."

  • A visit from Paris Hilton put Utah on the national stage as the celebrity socialite pushed for passage of SB127 to enact more regulations on the state's "troubled teen" centers. The bill sets new rules for the industry for the first time in 15 years.

Hilton gave emotional and graphic testimony in front of a panel of Senate lawmakers, describing how she experienced "unconstitutional, degrading and terrifying" abuse in the 1990s at Provo Canyon School at the hands of staff who she said forced her to take medication that made her feel "numb and exhausted," watched her go to the bathroom and shower, and threw her into a "solitary confinement" in a room she described as "covered in scratch marks and smeared blood with no bathroom."

The weight of the testimony from her and others, including a Utah man, baffled lawmakers, leaving some incredulous as to how such "disgusting" abuse of children had persisted for decades inside these youth facilities without accountability.

Propelled by Hilton's influence, the bill sailed through the Legislature without controversy.

  • HB168, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, sought to limit the sale of do-it-yourself sexual assault test kits, arguing they give "false hope" to rape victims because they're widely considered inadmissible in court. Despite emotional testimony from victims, a Senate committee held the bill after some legislators questioned how a prohibition of their sale could impact the freedoms of buyers and sellers.

Police reform

After a summer of unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last year, the Legislature faced dozens of bills aimed at police reform — some of which passed. Others didn't.

Like legislative leaders said would happen at the beginning of the session, Utah saw no "sweeping" police reforms, though numerous bills that passed made measured changes to put incremental checks on police use of force, reporting requirements, investigation timelines, inter-agency information sharing, and more.

Some of those bills that now head to the governor's desk include:

  • HB162, also sponsored by Romero, which would require 16 of the 40 hours of training police officers are required to complete each year to be focused on de-escalation tactics and working with individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
  • HB264, also Romero's, which would require a law enforcement officer to file a report after pointing a firearm or a Taser at a person.
  • A watered-down use of force bill, HB237, that in its final form sought to prevent "suicide by cop" by clarifying in training requirements that when someone is threatening suicide, an officer should try to use "strategic withdrawal" rather than engagement.
  • SB38, which would require annual certification of K-9 officers and their handlers. The bill came after Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall suspended and then censured the Salt Lake Police Department's K-9 program after a review found 18 questionable dog bites dating back to 2018. Mendenhall called the findings a "pattern of abuse."
  • SB106, a bill that sought more uniform use-of-force standards to be established across the state.

Lawmakers struck down some more dramatic attempts at police reform bills. Some of the bills that hit dead ends included:

  • HB245, a scaled-back bill that wouldn't have outright banned no-knock warrants, but would have placed more guardrails around the tactic.
  • HB74, which would have allowed cities to create their own elected police oversight boards.
  • HB133, which would have required release of body camera footage within 10 days of incidents that result in death or bodily injury or whenever an officer fires a gun.
  • HB367, would change Utah's "qualified immunity" law to allow police officers and police agencies to be sued if a person is injured or killed by the "unlawful, negligent or improper conduct" of a police officer while on duty.
  • HB154, another watered down use-of-force bill that would have set a timeline for completion of investigations into an officer's use of force and require that certain information be posted online.
  • SB157, a bill to implement a program to assist cities and counties to establish citizen advisory boards. The bill cleared the Senate but was never heard in the House.

Other bills were inspired by the killing of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey and how police handled her case. Some of those that were approved and now head to the governor's desk include:

  • SB13, which seeks to ensure a police officer can't skirt an internal investigation simply by jumping to a new police department. Today, if a police officer leaves an agency in the middle of an internal investigation, the investigation is dropped. It was inspired by a former University of Utah police officer who showed explicit photos of McCluskey to other officers, according to an independent investigation. The officer left the university before the internal affairs investigation was completed and was later hired at the Logan Police Department.
  • HB59, which would make it a crime for a police officer to share intimate images to anyone who is not part of an investigation. The bill was also inspired by the incident involving the same former University of Utah police officer.
  • HB147, which would specifically outlaw the sharing of intimate images without consent outside legitimate law enforcement investigative purposes, regardless of whether a victim is alive to suffer emotional distress. McCluskey provided intimate photos with a university police officer to aid in the investigation of her eventual killer, Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, who was blackmailing her with the images. A review conducted by the Utah Department of Public Safety found that officer accessed them multiple times and showed them to others on his phone on at least four occasions.

Local control

As it does every year, local control debates boiled over into issues ranging from billboards to mother-in-law basement apartments.

Two bills ardently opposed by cities and towns would have been very friendly to the billboard industry: SB61 would have allowed billboard companies to revamp any existing billboard across the state into an electronic billboard. Another, SB144, would have blocked city officials from restricting building or remodeling of existing billboards, and would allow billboard companies to sue cities for violating that law.

Billboards, especially electronic billboards, have been a hotly debated issue, especially in Salt Lake City, for years. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker carried that baton, considering them a visual blight that detracted from the Wasatch Front's natural scenery. Local control advocates won out on the billboard fight, and both bills hit dead ends. SB61 failed on a narrow vote in the Senate, and SB144 stalled there, too.

As for a bill looking to break down barriers for mother-in-law basement apartments — pitched as a free-market approach to increasing affordable housing — another local control debate also revolved around HB82, which would prohibit Utah cities and towns from setting what bill sponsor Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, called too many "roadblocks" in the way of Utahns wanting to rent out their own basements.

The bill was negotiated down to still remove zoning barriers for those so-called "accessory dwelling units," but with some compromises to cities and towns to allow certain types of city regulations. The compromise version of the bill was approved by both the House and Senate, and now heads to the governor's desk.

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Katie McKellar

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