Herbert plans to call special session by end of April to deal with coronavirus pandemic

Utah Capitol 13

Governor Gary Herbert says he will call lawmakers into a special session by the end of April so they can grapple with the fiscal fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers put the wraps on the 2020 session less than 3 weeks ago, but Herbert says the economic slowdown will have a big impact on the state, so they’ll need to return to work and make some fiscal adjustments to Utah’s budget.

“We’ve saved for a rainy day, and this is, in fact, a rainy day,” said Herbert during his Wednesday media briefing.

Utah’s two rainy-day funds have more than $800 million between the two of them that lawmakers can tap in case of an emergency. However, that money is only available to shore up the budget one time.

Despite a projected surplus of more than $900 million, most of it from income tax collections, lawmakers decided against cutting taxes during the 2020 session because of the economic uncertainty from the coronavirus outbreak that was unfolding in early March. At that point, the markets were dropping as the federal government struggled to respond to the unfolding pandemic. 

Instead of cuts, lawmakers established several savings accounts they could tap on an ongoing basis in case of a fiscal downturn. 

That foresight was prudent as growing unemployment will cause income tax collections to drop from people losing their jobs. Many of those newly unemployed Utahns will likely access the state’s newly expanded Medicaid program, which will put more of a financial strain on the state.

Herbert says lawmakers should be able to deal with the crisis as they wait for federal funds to make their way to the state.

“I think we’re in good shape to get through this with federal funds coming to help us,” said Herbert. “I think that’s going to make it very doable and possible to do this with minimal inconvenience.”

Herbert says he’s hopeful the federal government will do another round of fiscal stimulus that will give block grant money to the states.

“We would prefer the federal government give us more flexibility to direct those monies where they would be most useful and effective,” he said.

Herbert added there are no plans in place to offer stimulus payments to taxpayers in Utah similar to the $1200 payments the federal government is sending to millions of Americans. Instead, Herbert touted the state’s bridge loan program to help small businesses weather the economic storm.

Legislative leaders tell UtahPolicy.com the session will be held virtually if possible. Lawmakers approved a rule change at the end of the 2020 session allowing for remote meetings of the legislature during an emergency. It’s not clear how lawmakers will grapple with the technical requirements for convening all 104 lawmakers remotely.

Herbert also announced an order allowing renters to defer their rent payments for 45 days until May 15th. Landlords also cannot begin eviction proceedings until that date.