SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Legislature is expected to meet in a special session soon, where lawmakers will deal with more issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Never in my lifetime have we experienced such a critical time," Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in an interview with FOX 13. "Both health-wise and economically."
As the number of positive cases continues to grow in Utah, so does unemployment as businesses close and people are furloughed. Legislative leaders tell FOX 13 the public health response remains the top priority, but they are also looking at ways to keep Utah's economy afloat.
"We know this will end. We know we will get back to life as usual at some point," House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told FOX 13. "We want to make sure there’s jobs for people to come back to."
In the final days of the 2020 legislative session that ended in mid-March, lawmakers set aside $24 million for COVID-19 response efforts just as the virus was starting to emerge in Utah.
"I think by and large, that has all been used primarily for health care, and equipment," Speaker Wilson said.
The Senate President estimates Utah will need to find hundreds of millions to respond to the COVID-19 crisis now. Utah is expected to get about $700 million in relief aid from the federal government.
"We’ve talked about rainy day money. We really haven’t talked about monsoon money, but we’re kind of in a monsoon," the Senate President told FOX 13. "But we have planned, and now we’re implementing those plans. Our concern is maybe we haven’t backstopped it well enough."
Moving the tax deadline to July 15 has affected Utah's $20 billion budget.
"We’re going to have to go in and move some money from one fiscal year to the next," Speaker Wilson said.
Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said she is anticipating budget shifts and some cutbacks.
"One area we can shift funds -- if we don’t need to build a building, maybe we won’t," she said, noting that could free up tens of millions per building.
Lawmakers are also considering a growing list of topics that could become bills pushed through the special session. The ideas for possible bills include:
- Changes to voting laws for the upcoming primary election (the Senate President, for example, has expressed interest in looking at online voting options)
- Expanding unemployment benefits and waiving some requirements for people laid-off because of COVID-19
- Expanding sick leave for workers or increased employee protections
- Tweaks to Utah's education laws now that schools have been canceled
- Expansion of telecommuting infrastructure
- Cybersecurity laws now that more people are being pushed to work online, data privacy laws
- New health laws, including potential criminal charges for someone who may intentionally spread a virus like COVID-19
- Strengthening laws dealing with price-gouging in an emergency
- Delaying the property tax due date (which could affect local government budgets)
- Require insurers to cover COVID-19 in their policies
- Mortgage payment deferments
- Utilizing Utah's technical college programs to help train people who are unemployed
- Compensation for non-teaching or non-administrative staff in schools
- Expansion of remote education capabilities
- Prescription drug delivery for the elderly or at-risk people
- Extending the statute-of-limitations for court actions as many trials, hearings, etc., have been delayed
- Expanding Medicaid to the "fullest amount" allowed by the federal government
- Emergency "pop up" pharmacies
- Prepare for a possible re-emergence of the virus
Not all of those ideas will eventually become bills, legislative leaders caution. Some topics, such as an eviction freeze and suspending the work-requirement for Medicaid, have already been dealt with in executive orders by Governor Gary Herbert.
It may not be the only special session lawmakers have, Speaker Wilson said.
"We want to make sure we reserve and keep a good portion of that money set aside in case we need more money down the road. Especially for the economic concerns once we get out of the urgent phase and start into the stabilization phase and recovery," he said.
The effort to help Utahns impacted by the coronavirus and the state's recovery has been a bipartisan one, said Sen. Mayne.
"It doesn’t matter what party. We’re all working together. Everyone has the same goal," she told FOX 13.
During the final week of the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers passed a series of bills designed to combat COVID-19. They extended Utah's state of emergency until the end of June, expanded telehealth services, and allowed governments to meet exclusively online in a crisis.
That may get its first test when the special session takes place. Capitol Hill has been largely locked down with tours suspended and people only being allowed in for "official business." The House and Senate chambers will not be able to accommodate social distancing, so some lawmakers may be voting online.
"This will be a special session unlike any in the state’s history," Speaker Wilson said.