SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature is set to tackle whether to ban face mask requirements in schools in a special session on Wednesday.
Gov. Spencer Cox included the issue in his call for the special session issued Monday morning, along with a list of 21 other items he's looking to lawmakers to consider including how to spend more than $1.6 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding.
"Historically Utah's governors have only used the power to call special sessions for emergencies, time deadlines, issues of broad consensus or to fix technical mistakes in the code. For the reasons mentioned above, I agree with my predecessors and will do my best to follow their precedent," Cox wrote in a letter to legislators he issued along with the call.
"Not surprisingly, we received dozens and dozens of requests for bills to add to the special session call. I appreciate the work of President (Stuart) Adams and Speaker (Brad) Wilson to filter those requests and then make the passionate plea for including them on behalf of legislators. Because I respect their judgment, I have included several issues that arguably could have waited until January."
The matter of whether legislators should ban school mask requirements comes in wake of a surge of pushback from some parents who were upset masks were required in K-12 schools after other statewide COVID-19 requirements were lifted.
The new law that ended Utah's statewide mask mandate on April 10 and other restrictions related to the coronavirus earlier this month also allowed the state to continue requiring masks in K-12 schools. But that decision has been controversial, with rowdy protesters forcing the abrupt adjournment of a recent Granite School Board meeting.
Cox announced last week the state would not require masks to be worn in K-12 schools during the final week of classes, although he said local districts could choose to continue the mandate.
Now, by including a possible ban on school mask requirements on the agenda for the special session set for 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Cox is allowing the Legislature to possibly add more permanence to no mask requirements in schools.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he expects lawmakers to clarify school mask requirements will be banished at least through this fall.
"It's been kind of a contentious issue," Adams said, noting that meanwhile "fatality rates are plummeting and hopefully becoming non-existent and the vaccines seem to be working. So we need to take the contention away from masks."
The aim of enacting the ban, he said, is "trying to remove the issue and let's kind of move on and see if we can't alleviate some of the contention around masks."
Aside from masks, the biggest item on lawmakers' agenda will be tackling budget changes and how they plan to spent over $1.6 billion in the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The Executive Appropriations Committee on Monday endorsed a plan to only initially spend about $574 million of those funds.
Adams said the money is being divided into priority "buckets": up to $720 million for infrastructure and unemployment solvency; up to $115 million for ongoing response to the pandemic; up to $65 million in grants to businesses impacted by the pandemic; up to $280 million for water infrastructure; up to $175 million for broadband internet expansion; up to $80 million for education; up to $110 million for emergency preparedness; up to $35 million to address backlogged courts; and up to $70 million for housing and homeless.
Of that, lawmakers are planning on starting with spending $103 million for business and economic development, $33 million for criminal justice, $15 million for higher education, $127 million for infrastructure (including $90 million for a mental health facility at the University of Utah), $100 million for water conservation, and $165 million for social services including vaccine distribution, pandemic-related mental health services, establishing a food bank in San Juan County and the Navajo Nation, and $100 million for replenishing the unemployment compensation fund.
Lawmakers are holding off on spending the money all at once, Adams said, partially because of inflation concerns but mostly to spend more time on vetting the details of all the priorities.
"We just don't appropriate money for things we think we know about but aren't very well defined," Adams said. "So by putting it in buckets, it gives us time to define where they want to spend it, come up with those proposals and then we can make a better decision as to whether that's an appropriate spot to spend state money."
One area that Adams highlighted was $100 million for water — what he said will likely go toward secondary water metering to help increase conservation.
Here's what not to expect lawmakers to spend money on, however: a COVID-19 vaccine lottery, like what Ohio has implemented to incentivize more residents to get the shot.
"Our fatality rates are plummeting," Adams said when asked if lawmakers might implement any kind of financial incentives to get more Utahns vaccinated. "If there's a need, then we'll do some incentives, but Utahns are so responsible, and I think our take rate on the vaccine will be extremely good. Before we start spending state resources on incentives, I just think we need to know where we're at and the need for that incentive."
The full agenda for the special session is available on the governor's website.