Though 2020 is over, its shadow — and that of the COVID-19 pandemic — will still linger over Utah’s 2021 State Legislative Session, which begins on Tuesday.
For one, the Utah Capitol is closed to the public, partly in response to numerous protests planned in the coming week, but also to prevent massive spread of the novel coronavirus.
Republican Rep. Dan Johnson, over House District 4 of Logan, said the entire state could be impacted because changes to when and what emergency powers a governor can enact will be discussed.
“I don’t know what that language is yet, but I think that’s something for everyone to watch,” he said.
House District 5’s Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, said while he was comfortable with how the Bear River Health Department has handled public safety during the pandemic, he — and many others — had concerns about how things were handled in the governor’s office.
“We’ve never had what we had in COVID … but the emergency powers applied for earthquakes and fires were applied in a pandemic,” he said. “And so regardless of what it looks like, we’ve got to make adjustments for that because, you know, a fire or a flood is very different than this disease, and so how you respond and how you articulate that and how you sort of provide essential services or curtail behavior is very different in both those scenarios. And we, as government, need to respond to those differences in statute.”
Newly elected State Senator Chris Wilson has been assigned to the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee and said while small changes in emergency powers will be discussed, “it may take time” before a consensus is reached.
“As I’ve been talking and involved with meetings, there’s a number of bills that are passed that end up having unintended consequences,” said the District 25 senator. “…When you have to amend them or change them, it just takes more time and effort. So we’ve talked about making sure that we get these bills right the first time.”
Wilson said it could take years, especially because talks involve the state and local health departments, as well.
“I think really kind of looking at the whole process is something that we can improve, especially trying to get better prepared for the next, I’m going to say possible, pandemic,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about a next pandemic until we’re through the one we’re in, but we all know that that’s a real possibility that we weren’t aware of in 2019 or before. I think a lot of us were a little oblivious of what could and can happen.”
Another priority that will impact rural areas of the state is a new version of Johnson’s House Bill 190 from 2020, which designated emergency medical service as essential a service as law enforcement.
“I think that if people expect to have a certain level of emergency medical services, in other words, if I dial 911, I expect an ambulance to come,” Johnson said. “...Emergency medical services need to be provided, and there needs to be decisions made at the local level by governmental municipalities on what they want, and then how they’re going to pay for that.”
Snider said while a similar bill was held up last year, it was probably for the best the bill didn’t pass committee to avoid placing unintended consequences on rural communities.
“I think the bill that he’s working on is going to make some significant changes, if it’s successful,” said the volunteer firefighter. “And while it will make some changes, I think they are going to be beneficial longer, and it’s also going to preserve individual cities and small communities and the way they sort of self-govern and administer these relief services to their constituents.”
Though not tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, another carryover from last year will be seen in the legislature’s response to Constitutional Amendment G — the most controversial and impactful amendment proposed to the state’s constitution in November.
Amendment G allowed income tax to be used to fund services for children and those with disabilities rather than purely used in education. The amendment coupled with 2020’s H.B. 357 was a move lawmakers voted on to ensure a 6% increase in the weighted pupil unit and plan for a “rainy day fund for education” to account for both growth and inflation, Johnson said.
“And so we’ve got to make sure that gets done,” he said. “That’s what the guarantee was. And that’s what matters.”
On top of economic relief measures that will be discussed to offset the COVID-19 pandemic, New Rep. Mike Petersen said he’s working on a bill to halt practices of imminent domain for recreational purposes, which he said is of particular interest in Cache County.
Due to the pandemic, “the in-person town halls that have been part of our Saturday mornings for the last decade will be held virtually,” according to a release from the Cache GOP Chair Chris Booth.
Starting on Thursday after the session opens, the town halls will be streamed over the Cache County Republican Party Facebook page weekly at 7 p.m.
There will be no questions taken from the public during the meeting, but there is a Google form on the page to submit questions by 6 p.m. the Wednesday before the streaming.