In the wake of COVID-19, Utah existed in a state of emergency for the majority of 2020. Now, state lawmakers are seeking changes to Utah’s balance of executive powers in case of future pandemics.
Even before the legislative session began, Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson worked with lawmakers to address amending state provisions regarding public health and emergency powers, and according to Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan, Senate Bill 195 has bipartisan support.
“It’s the first time in our state’s history that we’ve had this kind of situation,” Wilson said, “But the bottom line is this amendment will limit the extensive executive emergency powers during those long-term emergencies, without hindering the rapid response we need.”
Gina Worthen, the chair of the Cache County Council, said while she’s still in the process of studying the bill, she supports the “encouragement of an effective partnership between local government and the local health department.”
“Historically health department orders have been made for individuals,” she wrote to The Herald Journal. “We haven’t seen such broad orders applied to the public for more than one hundred years.”
Former-Gov. Gary Herbert renewed the state of emergency in Utah multiple times, which some felt was an overreach and that the state legislators — typically the policymakers in the state — were left out of conversations.
“I’m comfortable with how the Bear River Health Department handled everything,” Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, told The Herald Journal before the 2021 Legislative Session. “I thought they did a pretty fantastic job. I had a few concerns with how Governor Herbert had handled some things, no participation with the legislature, in sort of these neverending emergency declarations.”
Though Wilson agreed the local health department did well in mitigating COVID-19 risks, he also agreed the governor’s office had missteps, especially early on as could be seen with the state’s more-than $80 million in no-bid purchasing orders — and $800,000 to a canceled order of hydroxychloroquine as an unproven coronavirus treatment method.
“Obviously, there was money that was wasted, but I think they had good intentions” Wilson said. “Hopefully we’ve learned from our mistakes in that area, but like I said, it was an unprecedented pandemic.”
Jordan Mathis, the BRHD’s new director, said he is also in support of the bill — mostly.
Under SB 195’s changes, lawmakers can overturn public health orders from the state’s department of health and county governments can vote to overturn public health orders from their local health departments.
“I don’t have an issue with that at all,” Mathis said. “We will always be working with our local elected officials. I know Lloyd did it when he was working through things here, and I did that in the district that I came from.”
However, state lawmakers will also — through joint resolution — be able to terminate local health department orders.
“The problem with that is that a body that is not representative of our community has the ability to overrule what was done at a local level, with the consent of the local elected officials,” he said. “The problem is, the majority of the legislature is derived from Salt Lake County and from other areas of the state, and we only have a handful of individuals both in the House and the Senate that represent our communities.”
Because of the fact every local lawmaker could vote “no” on such an issue and the motion would still pass, Mathis expressed concern that the bill could mean the state legislature fails to “stay in their lane” — the very concern that lead to the bill’s introduction in the first place.
As with all other bills introduced during the session, Wilson said there are multiple changes that could occur throughout the session.
“With these bills that have come in that have had both leaderships in the House and Senate, and the Governor’s office has worked on, they usually are pretty solid, but this could change, no question about it, between the committee and the other two readings in the Senate,” he said.
The bill will be heard in the Senate’s Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee on Thursday, and then still has to pass two readings in the Senate before it could move to the House of Representatives.