SALT LAKE CITY — Though controversy over critical race theory sucked most of the oxygen out of the Utah Legislature's special session on Wednesday, lawmakers acted on a host of other bills — including changes to the budget to accept over $1.6 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds.
In the special session called by Gov. Spencer Cox to deal with the budget and pass 22 bills — including one to ban school mask requirements this fall except for special circumstances — the Utah Legislature approved legislation to initially spend only $571 million of the federal funds funneled to the state by the American Rescue Plan Act, leaving the rest to be spent after more specifics can be ironed out in the 2022 general session in January.
Lawmakers divided the over $1.6 billion into "buckets," organized by priorities. That "game plan" for the funds, as House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville called it, include:
- $720 million for infrastructure and unemployment solvency
- $115 million for ongoing response to the pandemic
- $65 million in grants to businesses impacted by the pandemic
- $280 million for water infrastructure
- $175 million for broadband internet expansion
- $80 million for education
- $110 million for emergency preparedness
- $35 million to address backlogged courts
- $70 million for housing and homelessness
Lawmakers decided to initially spend only $571 million of those funds, including $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 University of Utah mental health facility), $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.
Don't expect to see a Utah vaccine lottery, like what officials in Ohio have implemented. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said they weren't inclined to use money to incentivize vaccines because he said Utahns thus far have generally been "responsible" in getting vaccinated.
In the budget bill SB1001, Utah lawmakers specified an intent that the money "may not be used to provide financial incentives, awards, drawings or prizes, or any similar incentive to anyone for receiving a vaccination."
Legislative leaders said lawmakers wanted to hold off on spending the money all at once, partially because of inflation concerns, but mostly to use more time to vet the details of all of the priorities.
One issue that buzzed on Utah's Capitol Hill while lawmakers readied the budget was housing and how the pandemic has impacted Utah's housing market.
"Every state in the country is dealing with the pandemic and the aftermath of the pandemic, which hopefully is getting to be closer and closer behind us, differently. One of the interesting parts about Utah ... (is) the economy here in Utah is doing better than anywhere else in the country," Wilson said in a media availability Wednesday morning. "That's creating some interesting post-pandemic dynamics for Utah."
One of the "unexpected outcomes of the pandemic," Wilson said, is "a lot of people are wanting to make Utah their home."
Utah's housing market has experienced a surge in demand leading to skyrocketing housing prices, adding to an housing affordability crunch the state has struggled with for years now.
Even though housing advocates asked for more, Utah lawmakers limited a pot of federal money for homelessness and housing to $70 million.
Utah faith and civic leaders reacted to that number "with a mixture of disappointment and hope," according to a news release issued Wednesday after the budget was finalized.
"The good news is that the Legislature has identified affordable housing and mental health as important areas for investment coming out of this pandemic," said Jean Hill of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake in a prepared statement. "It's crucial that the funds allocated in this round be targeted at the lowest income Utahns, and that we make significant increases in the next round of allocations that directly address the systemic inequities exposed and exacerbated by this pandemic."
After surveying more than 900 Utahns impacted by the pandemic, the group of faith and civic leaders called United Today Stronger Tomorrow made recommendations for how they believed the funding should be spent, including the creation of a $100 million affordable housing trust fund. Lawmakers followed some — but not all — of those recommendations.
"We see at least $200 million aligned with the priorities that emerged from our survey," said Luna Banuri of the Utah Muslim Civic League. "This is a good start, but the details of implementation will matter, and there is so much more that can be done."
Wilson, asking about those funds, called housing "one of the biggest challenges" facing the state, but noted the Utah Legislature earlier this year set aside $50 million to be invested into affordable housing programs.
"That money is just going to start getting to work in July," he said, noting that primarily funds preserving affordable housing and creating new affordable housing. "This $70 million is primarily designed to be appropriated to build additional new affordable housing and, in particular, the infrastructure cost that can come with it."
Wilson also added lawmakers have "more money in mind for affordable housing, but we want to let these three programs run" from July until January, "see which are working and giving us the biggest benefit and creating the most leverage." Then, Wilson said lawmakers will come back in the 2022 general session and decide "which make the most sense and put more money into those programs."
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, attempted to amend the bill on the House floor to specify more clearly that $35 million for a matching grant program listed in the budget bill would be explicitly for affordable higher density housing projects, but the majority of the House voted against his amendment, with some Republican lawmakers arguing it would place too many constraints on cities zoning for those projects.
"Frankly, I think this is unnecessary," House Budget Chairman Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said. "Obviously what we're trying to do is to provide more affordable housing. The way we're trying to do that is by encouraging higher density housing within communities, and I think higher density housing, by definition, would be more affordable housing."
Briscoe disagreed, saying just because housing is higher density doesn't mean it's affordable. He noted he drives past a high-density housing complex every day that has over 600 "market rate" units, and not a single affordable unit.
"None of it is low market," he said. "So I question whether or not just just building high-density housing produces affordable housing."
Along with the adjustments to the state's budget, lawmakers also approved HB1004, a bill to set up a grant program for local governments to receive grants related to COVID-19 recovery if local governments provide matching funds.
"We don't want these federal funds to be frittered away on one-off projects that may not have significant impacts to the citizens of this state and may only provide a temporary benefit," House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper said.
"We want to ensure the funds are spent in a way which provides the greatest long-term benefit and impact for the state. It incentivizes cities to work collaboratively with the state and think about regional projects which will have a greater impact for the communities in years to come."