Special session to deal with homeless issues coming next week

Gov. Gary Herbert will call the Utah Legislature into a special session next Wednesday to deal with several issues involving the homeless problem in Salt Lake City and surrounding areas, UtahPolicy.com is told.

Paul Edwards, Herbert’s deputy chief for communications, said the governor will call lawmakers into session Sept. 20. Edwards said he couldn’t say what may be on the call.

However, House Speaker Greg Hughes told UtahPolicy on Tuesday that Herbert is expected to issue the call in the next few days, with three possible items on the agenda:

— Ratify a recently-signed lease with Salt Lake City for a closed northern portion of Rio Grande Street in front of two homeless providers at 200 South.

The state will operate a “safe space” on the closed street, with temporary fencing going up Monday, where homeless folks with picture I.D.s can get away from drug dealers and other criminals.

— Place intent language in current budget laws specifying more clearly where the already-approved state homeless funding goes and what it can be used for.

Hughes said no new homeless funds would be appropriated Sept. 20, the Legislature’s regular interim study day. “We have enough money for now.”

But monies sitting in several state accounts may need to be moved around and/or their uses more clearly defined.

— Consider giving the governor broader powers to declare a state of emergency — allowing him or her the ability to quickly marshal state resources, like law enforcement, and spending, and without specific legislative approval.

As UtahPolicy.com reported previously, Herbert and his legal advisors considered calling such an emergency several weeks ago when Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski briefly declined to close Rio Grande to allow the “safe space” to be constructed, saying public hearings should be held and the City Council should make that decision.

But state attorneys warned Herbert and Hughes that the governor might not have the power to take over a city street – and that was one reason Herbert decided not to act.

Biskupski relented and used her temporary emergency powers to close the street, pending public hearings before the City Council.

“We found out that our governor has less power to declare emergencies than do our county and city governments,” said Hughes.

Granting the governor broader emergency powers could probably wait until the 2018 general session, but if clarification is needed, why not do it now, asked Hughes, whose public criticism of Biskupski set off a two-day political firestorm.

“We have strong partnerships” with the city and Salt Lake County and County Mayor Ben McAdams on the homeless issue, said Hughes.

But structures should be in place if need be.

The governor of Arizona recently used emergency powers to declare a statewide effort at fighting opioid addiction.

Herbert and the Utah Legislature may want to do a similar thing here, said Hughes. “Four out of five heroin addicts” in the homeless population “started with prescription opioid drugs. It is a firestorm across America, and in Utah, as well,” said Hughes.

The speaker said battling homeless and following through with “Operation Rio Grande” is still taking much of his time.

He said he spent three hours down on the Grande Monday, and several homeless folks walked up to him and thanked him for trying to help them.

“One homeless man said he and a few friends have been camping out, because they feared what was happening down on the street, with drug dealers and criminals all around them.

“Now that there will be a safe area, he said he likely will give up his camp and move into” the Road Home “at night – now that it is safer down here,” said Hughes.