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Mask mandate bans, broadband internet and $1.65 billion in the Utah legislature's special session

 Masks in schools
Posted at 3:15 PM, May 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-13 20:13:23-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Legislature will meet next week to decide how to spend $1.65 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money.

Republican legislative leaders have been meeting with Governor Spencer Cox on what topics to formally discuss and vote on in a special session of the Utah State Legislature set for May 19.

"Try to make sure we keep our economy going and we also deal with the growth that’s here," Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in an interview Thursday with FOX 13.

The federal government is giving Utah as much as $1.65 billion in money under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Legislative leaders said they do not intend to spend it all right away. With Utah's red hot economy — even coming out of a pandemic — there are fears it could overheat the economy.

"We’re going to set some of it aside until we have more information about where the economy is heading," House Speaker Brad Wilson told FOX 13.

But even with all that, GOP leaders on Utah's Capitol Hill have set a series of priorities: it must have generational impact, a statewide benefit and they want to ensure that whatever they buy with taxpayer dollars provides benefit without future liability.

A coalition of religious and community groups calling themselves "United Today, Stronger Tomorrow" have begin pressing the legislature to spend on issues facing the state overall. They commissioned a survey that found Utahns overwhelmingly favor more spending on affordable housing and mental health treatment.

"This isn’t a Salt Lake problem, it’s a statewide problem," said Jean Hill, the director of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City's Office of Life, Peace & Justice. "How are we going to address it if not with this funding?"

United Today, Stronger Tomorrow is launching a campaign urging Utahns to call and email lawmakers to ensure the money is shifted there.

"Legislators do respond to their constituents, so let’s make sure constituents are being heard. Because really people forget government is for you and by you," Hill said.

Speaker Wilson and President Adams both said they are considering spending for housing and mental health needs. Appearing separately at the Utah Taxpayers Association annual conference at the Grand America Hotel, they also outlined some other issues including funding for small businesses still impacted by COVID-19.

"Schools and getting them ready for the fall. We’re going to put money into water. Water is a big need for the state," said Speaker Wilson.

President Adams said he wanted to see money put into expanding broadband internet access in Utah.

"We’re seeing the advantages [of it] during the pandemic," he said, noting how many people pivoted to remote working last year. "Zoom meetings will continue after the pandemic."

President Adams said lawmakers will also consider dozens of bills. Most of them were technical corrections to existing laws ("cleanup" as lawmakers like to call it) passed in the 2021 session that ended in March. Still, FOX 13 is told to expect a bill on the inland port and streamlining its board and mission, as well as a bill that would ban face mask mandates in schools in the fall.

"We will be discussing whether or masks will be allowed or required in schools in the fall, at our universities as well as public schools," Speaker Wilson said. "I suspect that a bill that will not make that mandatory will pass."

After repeatedly refusing to lift the K-12 mask mandate, Gov. Cox on Thursday announced he would allow school districts to do so — for the last week of the school year for students. The districts and individual schools could still opt to keep a mask mandate in place, if they so choose.

Lawmakers are being asked to consider legislation to ban the teaching of "critical race theory" in Utah schools. "Critical race theory" is the concept that systemic racism is a part of American society. Conservative groups have been flooding lawmakers' inboxes with demands that any instruction on it be halted. Gov. Cox has pointed out that Utah schools do not teach it now, nor does he expect they will.

Speaker Wilson and President Adams acknowledged the push to run a bill, but neither would commit to it in next week's special session.

"We don’t have consensus on whether or not we’ll be taking that up," Speaker Wilson told FOX 13.