The 2020 Utah Legislature will be remembered for, what?
Maybe for boosting public education funding by more than $400 million dollars?
How about for repealing the second-largest tax cut in state history, and instead NOT GIVING a tax cut at all?
Who would have thought that with $921 million in tax surpluses, one of the largest ever, in an election year the majority Republican House and Senate members would have done so little for taxpayers?
Well, there were reasons:
Many GOP legislators were in a sour mood. The second day of the session leaders and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert agreed to repeal the extensive tax reform package passed just a month earlier in a special session,
That reform gave a $160 million overall income tax cut to citizens. But a group opposed to reinstating the state portion of the sales tax on food got the needed voter signatures and in light of a likely repeal by voters in November, Republicans gave up.
The tax reform fiasco loomed over the rest of the session, with some lawmakers just not wanting to give voters -- who rejected their tax-problem solutions -- money back.
Then came the Coronavirus, creeping into Utah, and even changing the way lawmakers routinely interact with lobbyists and citizens the final week. No shaking of hands, followed by reduced face-to-face contact, even fears that the Legislature may adjourn early to stay home.
Those coronavirus fears grew in the final week of the legislature, with lawmakers clearly worried about the possibility of an economic downturn and how that might douse Utah’s red-hot economy.
After haggling over several different potential tax relief situations and rejecting them as too expensive, lawmakers attempted to strike a deal on a modest $15 million proposal to remove income taxes on social security for seniors making up to $48,000. But, that too was rejected as lawmakers felt a better use of the excess money was to put it away as a hedge against a tough economy.
Lawmakers did spend a lot of that income tax surplus to public education:
A Weighted Pupil Unit increase of 6 percent, which often translates into teacher pay hikes by local school district boards. Originally legislators approved a 5 percent WPU hike but increased that total by another $34 million as part of an agreement with the education community to change how public schools are funded.
The Utah constitution mandates that all income taxes go toward public and higher education. The agreement, as first reported by UtahPolicy.com, would open up that earmark to other expenses, specifically services for disabled Utahns and children. That could free up an estimated $500 million or more annually in the General Fund, which mostly comes from sales taxes, giving lawmakers some much-desired budget flexibility. The change to the constitution will require approval from Utah voters in November.
In exchange for not opposing the change to the state constitution, lawmakers pumped more than $400 million in new money into public education this year. $75 million of that created an education sustainability fund that budgeters can tap to make up for lean years, or add to it when tax collections are above projections. The legislature will also move a large portion of the public school budget into the Uniform School Fund, which will protect it from being raided for higher education or other uses.
With just minutes to spare in the session, lawmakers gave the final approval to a measure eliminating straight-ticket voting in elections. Utah was one of just 7 states that allowed the practice. Sponsor Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, has been trying for years to pass the straight-ticket prohibition. She finally got the measure over the finish line with just 8 minutes to spare in her final session on the Hill.
Other decisions made by lawmakers during the 2020 session:
More money for air quality programs, but not as much as Herbert wanted in his pre-tax-reform repeal budget recommendation.
Tougher anti-abortion laws, with a near ban which won’t go into effect unless the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling. However, a bill requiring women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion died in the House on the final night.
Killed several gun control efforts, including a requirement that all gun sales at a gun show must have a buyer-background check.
Also killed, after Herbert threatened a veto, a bill would have allowed Utahns to carry a concealed weapon in public without a permit.
Legislators did reach a compromise with the Better Boundaries independent redistricting commission as first reported by UtahPolicy.com. One million bucks will be spent on an independent commission next year, but the Legislature won’t have to vote on any of its plans (although it may), and citizens don’t have a right to sue lawmakers if a map by the commission is not ultimately adopted by the Legislature.
Here are some of the other things lawmakers did, and didn’t, accomplish during their 45-day session.
- Increase the Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU) by 6 percent, one of the largest increases in recent years.
- Repeal the tax reform package passed in a December special session.
- Reach a compromise with Better Boundaries, Utah keeps its citizen adopted independent redistricting commission, but with fewer controls on the Legislature’s constitutional redistricting authority.
- Adopted an expanded education funding reform, which will require voter approval in November to extend income taxes going to programs for the disabled and children.
- Suspend UtahPolicy.com contributing editor Bob Bernick’s press credentials for one week for taking an unauthorized video of U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, in the House majority caucus room.
- Send a certificate of appreciation (not requiring a vote) to President Donald Trump thanking him for taking several actions, like cutting down the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments in southern Utah.
- Approved a bill to decriminalize polygamy. The measure removed felony penalties for plural marriage among consenting adults, making it an infraction instead. However, polygamy would be treated as a felony if it were charged in conjunction with other crimes.
- Allocated $24 million to fund the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Topped off the state’s two rainy-day funds adding just over $14 million to the education rainy day account and $11 million to the
- Didn’t extend gun background checks.
- Give any tax cuts, even though the state saw $921 million in ongoing and one-time tax surpluses.
- Attempt to single out student “conservative” speech protections at Utah public colleges and universities.
- Require a study of a drug often used to help minors transition their gender.
- Allow adults to carry their legal weapons concealed without getting a concealed carry permit.
- “Censure” U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney for voting to convict GOP President Donald Trump on one count of articles of impeachment.
- Pass a bill setting up an official recall procedure for U.S. senators from Utah.
- Drastically change SB54, the current law allowing candidates to pick the signature-gathering route, or delegate/convention route, or both to a political party’s primary election.
- Create a cabinet-level position in the executive branch to coordinate and command actions helping homeless citizens.
Finally, several lawmakers are retiring at the end of the 2020 session or running for another office:
- Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, is retiring.
- Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, is running for Congress.
- Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, is retiring.
- Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, is running for State Senate.
- Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna, is retiring.
- Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake City, is retiring.
- Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, is retiring.
- Sen. Allen Christensen, R-Ogden is retiring.