Lawmakers planning on budget special session in June and another on policy in July

Utah Capitol 26

Utah lawmakers have been told to plan for a special session in June to address changes to the budget because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but any policy changes will take place in a second special session after Independence Day.

Multiple legislative sources confirm to that the plan is to hold a special session to make any adjustments to the budget for the current and next fiscal year during the week of the June interim sessions. But, any legislation addressing policy will wait until July. Legislative appropriations committees will start looking at their budgets the last week of May, with an eye toward the June session.

Utah’s budget is already feeling the pinch from the virus. On Tuesday, the Utah Tax Commission reported Utah’s gas tax collections fell 13 percent in March, which was along the leading edge of the coronavirus restrictions in Utah. The fall in tax collections is likely to get worse.

That schedule puts the budget considerations prior to the June 30 primary election, but any major policy considerations will have to wait until nominees in contested races have been decided. It’s a good move by lawmakers to deny any primary opponent political ammunition that can be used against them if they have to vote on an unpopular issue.

Moving a policy session to July also stymies any possible legislative investigation into how the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars of coronavirus relief funds until after the primary elections. Lawmakers came under fire after they allocated $8 million to build a stockpile of an anti-malarial drug that some suggested could help in the treatment of coronavirus. That purchase was canceled after studies showed the medication had no effect and could harm some patients.

The June budget session will be the third special session lawmakers will hold to chart the state’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

A change in the Utah Constitution allows lawmakers to call themselves into special session in under some emergency conditions. Previously, only the governor could call a special session. 

Last month, legislators held back-to-back sessions where they spent billions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid, most of that going toward expanding unemployment benefits for out of work Utahns. They also shifted money from this fiscal year to the next because the tax filing deadline moved from April to July, which moved about $800 million in expected tax collections to next year.

On the policy front, lawmakers also passed legislation requiring the governor to give them 24-hour notice before taking most emergency actions. Originally, legislators wanted to require 48-hour notice but came to a compromise with Gov. Herbert’s office on the 24-hour window. Legislators also passed a bill giving legal protections to businesses that reopen during the pandemic.