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Utah legislature creates commission to push economic recovery and re-open the state

Utah legislature special session
Posted at 12:03 PM, Apr 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-17 14:05:49-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The House of Representatives passed a bill on Friday that would establish a commission that would make its first recommendations as soon as next week to the governor on ways to start re-opening Utah.

If Governor Gary Herbert doesn't go with it? He would be required to justify to the legislature why he won't.

Senate Bill 3004, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, and House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, creates the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission to advise best strategies toward re-opening the economy. It would be made up of appointees from the legislature, governor, the Utah Department of Health and CEOs of health care systems.

The Senate passed the bill on Thursday night.

After a lengthy debate in their virtual special session, some Republican House members expressed frustration that things weren't re-opening, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

"While I’m concerned about the health and well being of each Utah citizen, my heart goes out to those who have lost family members, and particularly and specifically, Rep. Ballard and the passing of her father," said Rep. Tim Quinn, referencing the death of auto dealer and former House Speaker Bob Garff from COVID-19. "I’m much more concerned about the economy of Utah and the economy of this nation."

Rep. Schultz said the commission's task was to give recommendations to the governor on how they can go from "red" to "orange" and ultimately to a "green" condition. Lawmakers said they had heard from constituents who are losing jobs and afraid that things will not re-open.

"We know this virus is going to be with us for the 6-24 months and we cannot continue to stay home and stay safe," Rep. Schultz said.

But some questioned if the legislature's commission duplicated efforts. Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, asked what was different between this and the governor's Economic Recovery Task Force and the Coronavirus Task Force. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who serves on the governor's task force, believed this could move faster.

"Everybody on there is pulling a paycheck right now," he said, frustrated with the task force. "My constituents are not pulling a paycheck. They’re two weeks from losing homes and vehicles."

The bill passed 59-15 and returns to the Senate.

The left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah called the bill an "embarrasing power grab" by the legislature.

"While everyone is eager for a return to normalcy, let’s be clear: there is no economic health without public health," said Lauren Simpson, ABU's policy director. "The Governor is doing his job by addressing the health crisis, and the Legislature should stop trying to get in the way. This bill could result in bad or delayed decisions being made during a moment when nimble and definitive actions are what will save lives."

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Utah State Legislature has been forced to hold its special session online. The House and Senate chambers don't allow for social distancing, so lawmakers are deliberating bills in a video conferencing app. The House will return to session next Thursday.