Lawmakers allocate more than $4 billion in coronavirus relief funds during special session

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Utah lawmakers allocated billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds during Thursday afternoon’s special session, most of it going toward the state’s unemployment insurance fund. But, they’re preparing for the economic pain that’s sure to come.

The massive $4 billion influx in unemployment funds will cover the extra $600 per week for jobless benefits included in the CARES act passed by Congress earlier in April. The money will also provide an extra 13 weeks of unemployment for those who have exhausted traditional benefits, as well as covering the self-employed and independent contractors who are not usually eligible for unemployment. The money includes an estimated $2 billion for the rest of the 2020 fiscal year and another $2 billion for 2021.

Of the remaining $700 million, $100 million will pay for extra food assistance to low-income Utahns, and $200 million is part of the federal disaster declaration approved for Utah by the White House.

The most controversial part of the spending package is $6 million that would go toward the stockpiling of drugs to treat COVID-19, including the controversial antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine. The state has already spent $800,000 in taxpayer funds to secure 20,000 doses of the drug. A recent study concluded the drug does not provide any benefit and has led to a higher death rate in patients.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, defended the purchase while admitting he does not know whether the drug is effective against coronavirus.

“If we find out it does work, and I have no idea if it does, and we don’t have any of it, they’ll say we’re putting lives in danger. I don’t think the dollars we spent will equate to the lives that may have been lost.”

Lawmakers cannot spend any of those federal funds to shore up Utah’s budget, which is likely to take a significant hit from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. That difficult job will be on the agenda for the next special session once lawmakers start to understand the scope of the economic damage to the state.

Additionally, Utah lawmakers adopted several new laws Thursday.

As reported previously by UtahPolicy.com, HB332, the 2020 general session special needs children program that was vetoed by GOP Gov. Gary Herbert underwent several changes making the program more acceptable to the governor.

Democratic legislators, with a few Republicans, still oppose the compromise, worked out by House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.

Rep. Marie Poulson, R-Cottonwood Heights, said this is still private school vouchers, anyway you cut it.

She said now, in a special session, is not a time to adopt a whole new program. Because of the coronavirus, while the state many have been “flush” with money for schools when the session ended, it may well be that all that public education money may not be there next year now.

But the GOP majorities in both the House and Senate held sway, and passed the new program.

Another bill vetoed by Herbert, imposing the current state sales tax — 4.85 percent — on fuel bought by railroads in the state. However, the margin in the Senate was a single vote.

Several lawmakers said Union Pacific and other common carrier railroads are not living up to promises to improve crossings.

As recently reported, trains in Utah are getting longer and longer, as railroads look to make more secure profits and evolve as transportation times change.

Under the new law, the sales tax on railroad fuels will placed in a special account — upwards of $3 million a year — and be spent only on making railroad crossings safer.

The ultimate solution in some cases will be relatively-expensive new railroad overpasses, so trains won’t be crossing roads at all, but traveling above them.

The virtual debates in this session showed one funny situation: Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, was caught on a “hot mike” talking on the phone to a lobbyist trying to talk him out of voting for the railroad fuels tax — as Dunnigan was a bit embarrassed by the situation.

The back-to-back special sessions won’t be the last as lawmakers are bracing for budget cuts due to declining tax revenue from the pandemic.