SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers met in a special session to pass a series of bills in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests against police brutality.
Some lawmakers appeared in person at the Capitol, sporting face masks and attempting to be socially distant in the cramped House and Senate chambers. In the House, plexiglass barriers were erected between the Speaker’s dais and the lawmakers below. Other lawmakers appeared virtually over a video conferencing app to debate and vote.
“Today is about moving forward and trying to find ways to serve the citizens of this state,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told his colleagues, urging them not to try to score “political points” but to be “Team Utah.”
The biggest item on the agenda was filling an $850 million shortfall caused by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers dipped into relief funds, rainy day funds and imposed just under 2% cuts to government agencies to balance the budget. However, social services and education saw net increases in spending.
“We’ve tried to surgically go through all the budgets and tried to be fair and take care of the things that are essential to the state of Utah,” said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who oversees the budget for the Utah State Senate.
Lawmakers deliberated on a number of bills related to COVID-19. The Senate passed bills to allow first responders to seek a warrant to force someone who coughs on them to be tested for coronavirus. They also expanded lawsuit immunity if someone is exposed to COVID-19 while being in a business or a government building.
The legislature set a $2 million cap on how much the governor can spend in a state of emergency before going to lawmakers. FOX 13 has reported extensively on the governor’s use of “emergency procurement” powers.
Senators also passed a bill mandating testing of long-term care facility residents, where the most fatalities from the virus in Utah have originated from. On that bill, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, argued that people can refuse (but they could also be evicted from the care facility).
“It balances individual liberty rights that we have as Americans, against the right of the collective, we the people,” he said.
In the House, lawmakers voted 55-22 to extend the state of emergency for COVID-19 until the end of August as requested by Governor Gary Herbert. However, some complained it was going on too long and hurting businesses, criticizing the governor’s response to the pandemic.
On Thursday, Utah saw a large increase in COVID-19 cases, but Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, insisted that hospitalizations have remained steady and justified loosening restrictions.
“If we can protect that medically frail population, we can allow a lot of the non-medically frail population to resume what would be normal activities, work and other things,” he told reporters. “And if they happen to get COVID or receive the virus, they’re going to walk through it.”
One of the biggest debates on Thursday came on the House floor over Rep. Sandra Hollins’ bill to ban police from using a “knee on the neck” method of restraint that sparked global protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The bill also prohibits Utah’s police academies from teaching chokehold tactics.
Lawmakers deliberated a provision that includes an investigation and potential criminal charges against an officer. Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, questioned the speed of the bill getting through the legislature.
“We don’t do knee-jerk reactions,” he said.
That was echoed by Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, who said he was unaware of law enforcement in Utah doing any of the restraint tactics discussed.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything in Utah, our law enforcement, that’s been out of line. I hope that we’re not knee jerk reacting to this bill,” Rep. Albrecht told the House.
But lawmakers pushed back, arguing that the bill was necessary. Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said she passed an anti-price gouging law 15 years ago and it’s being used now in response to COVID-19.
“This law only deals with police brutality. The deeper, more chronic problem of racism, we continue to struggle with,” said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, who defended the bill and urged its passage.
Rep. Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill was needed.
“Our community is feeling unsafe. That’s why you’re seeing the protests. They are in fear for their lives. This bill sends a very powerful message as legislators, saying ‘We hear you and we’re going to do something about it.’ This is the beginning of the conversation around what we need to do in this state to ensure it doesn’t happen to anyone. Not to my kids, not to your kids,” she said.
The bill passed the House 69-5 and passed the Senate unanimously. It now goes to the governor for his signature.