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Socially distant at the Capitol, lawmakers plan COVID-19 bills

Utah State Legislature interim socially distant meeting
Posted at 3:46 PM, Jun 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-15 22:27:25-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers sat in every other chair in an empty committee room, sporting face masks as others appeared on a computer screen.

Ahead of a special session planned at the end of this week, bills are being drafted to address the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Utah State Legislature's Interim Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee voted to advance a bill that would expand teleworking in the state. When the pandemic began, the state was experimenting with it and was forced to dramatically expand it.

Now, they've found, it's a huge hit. An analysis provided to lawmakers shows that it can save money and productivity is still good. Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, asked for it to be expanded. He initially sponsored a bill to expand teleworking in state government as an air quality measure. However, COVID-19 prompted him to ask to designate all state government employees based on whether they can telework.

"Unfortunately, we are still stuck with people who believe that absent a person’s face being in an office and sitting in a cubicle answering a phone or sitting at a laptop so someone can walk by and ask about their TPS reports," he said, referencing the movie "Office Space."

"We have proven that is not the case," Sen. McCay added.

The committee also voted to advance a resolution to extend Utah's state of emergency for COVID-19 at the request of Governor Gary Herbert. However, the committee voted to cut the amount of time from 60 days to 30.

Some lawmakers disagreed with extending it altogether.

"I think we need to remove this state of emergency," said Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Pleasant Grove, who said people already understand what needs to be done.

In a rare moment, Republicans and Democrats united over scrutiny for executive branch spending during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state's utilization of "emergency procurement" is something FOX 13 has covered extensively. Lawmakers said they wanted to see more oversight as the state of emergency is extended.

"My constituents deserve to have accountability as taxpayers of how we’re spending their money," said Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, who asked to slash the length of the state of emergency.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, took issue with the underlying laws that he said aren't specifically designed for a pandemic.

"It has set up a scenario where draconian measures have been taken in certain jurisdictions which have crippled our economy," he said.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, made a motion to cut the length of the state of emergency until the end of July.

"I’m trying to reduce that and hopefully give us time to address some of the other concerns," he said.

The legislature's Interim Business & Labor Committee heard about concerns regarding banking during COVID-19, including payment deferments and potential audits of state-level use of PPP loans. Howard Headlee, the head of the Utah Bankers Association, said $5.2 billion had already been injected into the economy before federal reimbursement.

The Utah Housing Coalition asked the committee to do more with mortgage counselors as people seek to keep their homes in the face of job losses and other economic stress.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, called for the legislature to update an anti-price-gouging law passed 15 years ago. COVID-19 is the first time it's been applied and it wasn't designed for online sales.

Utah's Division of Consumer Protection said it has received 912 complaints of price-gouging since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March. The law allows for items to be sold at up to 130% of cost, but Rep. Arent said some had reported hand sanitizer being sold at 393% of cost. She called for the law to be updated to reflect modern times.

The committee voted to open a bill file to update it.