How many special sessions will lawmakers need to tackle the COVID-19 crisis?

Utah Capitol 40

The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on the state’s economy, but lawmakers still don’t have a handle on how much damage the pandemic will leave in its wake.

Legislative leaders are planning on one or two special sessions before the end of the fiscal year on June 30, but it will be a few weeks before they decide to pull the trigger. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, tells that it’s probably best to hold off for a few weeks.

“We’re a little wary of coming back,” says Adams. “It’s prudent that we wait for more data, but even with that, it’s going to be very difficult for us.”

As reported previously, lawmakers would prefer to call themselves into session instead of Governor Gary Herbert, as it gives them control over the agenda. But, lawmakers would be limited to spending just 1 percent of the current state budget. If Gov. Herbert calls the session, those limits don’t apply. 

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is an ever-evolving situation, meaning it’s difficult if not impossible to understand what impact it will have on the economy. 

Last week Utah lifted some coronavirus restrictions, moving from “red” to “orange” status level. State officials and lawmakers hope that the move to restart portions of Utah’s economy will help stabilize the financial impact of the virus. 

Last month, lawmakers held two special sessions where they passed several pieces of legislation in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and spent more than $4 billion in federal coronavirus aid, mostly money for increased unemployment benefits. 

Adams says he would prefer that lawmakers wait a few more weeks to hold another special session so they can bet a better handle on the state’s fiscal situation. But, even with more data, forecasting the budget is going to be very difficult.

“Utah has some of the best economists I’ve ever seen. But, I don’t know how in the world they can estimate our budget right now,” said Adams. “If they use our current unemployment rate, it’s going to be a very difficult budget next year. If they assume that the economy is recovering, it could be a really good budget.”

Adams says lawmakers know they need one or more special sessions before the end of the current fiscal year on June 30. He says legislative leaders will start to discuss updated revenue numbers next week. But, they don’t want to act too early only having to return shortly thereafter to make further changes.

“We need to solve these problems sooner or later,” said Adams. “We’re a little wary of coming back too early.”