SALT LAKE CITY — As expected, Gov. Spencer Cox on Wednesday signed a bill approved by the Utah Legislature earlier this month to lift the statewide mask mandate on April 10 and lay ground rules for when other COVID-19 restrictions on state and local levels will be terminated.
The bill — now a law with Cox's signature — ends all other COVID-19 restrictions as soon as the state reaches three benchmarks: a two-week COVID-19 case rate of less than 191 per 100,000; less than 15% of intensive care unit beds occupied by COVID-19 patients; and once the state receives — but not administers — at least 1.63 million vaccinations. In earlier versions of those bills, those benchmarks had lower thresholds, but Utah Department of Health officials negotiated for metrics they were more comfortable with.
HB294 ends all COVID-19 restrictions on state and local levels by July 1, even if those benchmarks haven't been met.
Cox signed the bill after negotiating heavily behind the scenes with lawmakers in the final days of the 2021 general session. He wasn't enthusiastic about the bill but said he pushed for the April 10 date as the latest possible date lawmakers would agree to. Lawmakers were initially poised to approve an immediate lift to the mask mandate with what Cox expected would be a veto-proof majority.
"In those conversations, once I engaged, I had to say, 'Look, we need more time,'" Cox said in his monthly PBS Utah news conference last week. "And so we started negotiating, and the spot we got to was April 10. And if they would get to April 10, buying us an extra month, then I wouldn't veto the bill. And so I felt like that was the best thing to do."
This is not what we wanted. I've been critical of it from the beginning. We had a timeline we set out. The Legislature disagreed with that. We negotiated. We got as many days as we could.
–Utah Gov. Spencer Cox
Cox said he wasn't likely to veto the bill after engaging in those negotiations.
"I can't tell them, 'Hey, I'm going to negotiate and then turn around and veto your bill,'" Cox said. "That's how you lose the respect of the Legislature, and that's not how I operate when I work with them."
Still, Cox said he didn't know "that there is much upside at all" to the bill.
"This is not what we wanted. I've been critical of it from the beginning. We had a timeline we set out. The Legislature disagreed with that. We negotiated. We got as many days as we could," he said.
Cox also signed SB195, another highly negotiated bill reining in the governor's and mayors' emergency powers in a prolonged emergency that lasts more than 30 days.
SB195 limits the duration of a public health order to 30 days. It also only allows the Legislature — and other legislative bodies such as county or city councils — to extend or terminate an order. It would also give legislative bodies the power to end an "order of constraint," such as a stay-at-home order, at any time.
It also blocks governors, mayors or public health departments from issuing a new emergency declaration for the same disaster to replace an expired or terminated order unless there are exigent circumstances, like a "significant change" after expiration that "substantially increases the threat to public safety or health," according to the bill.
SB195 also requires 24-hour notice to legislative leaders and legislative bodies before an emergency order can be extended, as well as a public legislative meeting to evaluate whether to extend the health order at the request of the health department.
Cox supported the bill and legislative leaders' arguments that state code never anticipated a prolonged emergency, resulting in an imbalance between legislative and executive powers.
But Cox pulled out his veto pen for a different bill dealing with emergency orders and schools.
Cox vetoed SB187, calling it "unnecessary and potentially dangerous."
SB187 would have created certain requirements for public health orders that directly affect local education agencies and private schools, including requirements that the governor, county mayors, the Utah Department of Health or a local health department notify local education agencies or private schools of the date and time of a meeting to discuss the public health order before issuing the other, among other requirements.
"During the past few months our office has negotiated in good faith with the Legislature on determining the proper balance of emergency powers," Cox wrote in a letter to legislative leaders explaining his veto of SB187. "We have agreed on the importance of retaining for our state and local health officials the ability to act quickly and appropriately in times of emergency."
Cox said SB187 was not part of the negotiations over SB195, the balance of emergency powers bill backed by legislative leaders.
"Communication with affected entities is critical in an emergency, but SB187 provides unnecessary and potentially problematic hurdles for health departments to respond to public health emergencies in their communities, which may hamper a timely response," Cox wrote.
Cox also vetoed SB39, a bill relating to hemp regulation in Utah. In his veto letter to legislative leaders, Cox said SB39 was originally introduced as a consensus bill recommended by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, but several changes made to the bill before it was approved "have raised concerns sufficient to warrant a veto."
"This is unfortunate because I believe other provisions of the bill contain good policy that would be beneficial to the state," Cox wrote, adding that if lawmakers addressed those issues, he'd include the bill in a call for a special session expected in May.
Cox said his concerns are provisions related to legalization of hemp flower, class registration of hemp products and cannabidiol in food and alcoholic beverages. Cox wrote legalization of hemp flower "creates enforcement problems due to difficulties in distinguishing legal hemp flower from marijuana flower or hemp flower with unlawful concentrations" of THC.
Also, Cox wrote the bill prohibits hemp products to be registered as a class, "which would allow products with the same ingredients but different dosage strengths to be in the same class. This is unwise. Dosage strength is one of the most important differences between cannabinoid products. Allowing products with different dosage strengths to be registered as the same product has serious implications for product review, registration, and enforcement, which would increase costs and impede the state's ability to guarantee that each product in a class is safe for the public."
Cox also said he's concerned that the bill appears to permit CBD in food and alcoholic beverages, "inconsistent with the guidance" from the Food and Drug Administration, and could "jeopardize" federal funding. Cox also wrote the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau will not approve labels or formulas for alcoholic beverages that contain controlled substances under federal law.
Therefore, Cox said the bill would "lead to inequitable and potentially dangerous results in terms of what alcoholic products may permeate off-premise markets."
Finally, Cox vetoed HB98, a bill that made changes to local government building regulation, citing "serious concern" with Utah's housing affordability crisis while expressing appreciation of lawmakers' efforts to address the issue.
But Cox said after the legislative session ended, his office learned of concerns from the Federal Emergency Management Agency regarding HB98 and whether it would put 226 Utah cities or towns "at risk of probation or suspension" from a federal program. Cox called for a redrafting of the bill to address those concerns.
Cox also allowed three bills to become law without his signature.
Among them was HB197, a bill supported by lawmakers to prevent what they called "party raiding," or to clamp down on election "gamesmanship." The bill blocks Utah voters from changing their party affiliation ahead of a primary election starting March 31.
Cox declined to sign it, according to a statement issued from his office saying he and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson are "committed to increasing voter access and participation."
"This bill could limit the ability for a voter who may not readily know their affiliation from participating in the party primary of their choice," the statement said. "The Lieutenant Governor's Office will continue to ensure that Utahns understand these deadlines so they can participate fully with the political party of their choice."
HB197's sponsor, Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, argued in favor of his bill by pointing out that over 79,000 Utahns switched their party affiliation to vote in last year's Republican primary. In that election, now-Gov. Spencer Cox beat former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. by only 6,319 votes.
Ahead of last year's primary, former Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said he'd joined the GOP and encouraged others to do so in what he called a "rigged election" because of Republican Party rules that allow only party members to participate in a primary. The Democratic Party in Utah allows either their party members or unaffiliated voters to participate in its primaries.
It's impossible to say whether blocking voters from changing their affiliation would have altered the outcome of Cox's primary win, but Teuscher argued "it's critical we find a way now to prevent this gamesmanship from future elections."
Cox also allowed SB167, a bill dealing with film economic incentives, to go into law without his signature, citing studies that have "consistently demonstrated that Utah's Motion Picture Incentive Program" as currently written "does not provide a positive return on investment to Utah taxpayers."
Cox, according to a statement from his office, looks forward to "reevaluating the purpose and objectives of the state's economic development programs" and whether such incentives "serve to effectively leverage free market mechanisms for the growth and sustainability of Utah's economy."
The governor also allowed SB104, a bill to allow Davis County to impose a property tax levy to fund animal control services, to go into law without his signature.
"New taxing authorities inevitably lead to new taxes for Utah residents," a statement from Cox's office said, while expressing appreciation of the Davis County Commission and Davis County mayors for "coming together to solve a long-standing local issue in a way that is tax neutral initially. However, the governor is wary of these types of levies and the potential for future tax increases on citizens in the future."
Cox has signed what's likely the last of the 2021 bills requiring his signature before his deadline Thursday. Those bills included: HB220, a bill to repeal last year's bail reform that critics said would leave Utah vulnerable to costly legal challenges and would walk back progress that's made the state safer.
Cox signed the bill, but not without concerns, saying it "does not represent complete or consensus pretrial detention policy," but he signed it after "receiving a commitment" from the bill's sponsor, House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, "to work with all stakeholders ... to develop sound policy recommendations in this area." SB107, a bill to require the Utah Department of Health to provide support to schools that initiate widespread COVID-19 testing under the Test to Stay program. It also establishes a 2% case threshold, up from 1%, of the school population when schools must take steps to mitigate further spread of the virus, which often includes shifting to online learning. HB81, a bill to allow mental health days as a valid excuse for a school absence. HB188, a bill to designate the honeycomb calcite as Utah's state stone.
Those, among others, brought the total of bills Cox has signed from the 2021 general session to 460.