With A Focus On the Pandemic, Sen. Ron Winterton Recaps The Legislative Session
The Utah Legislative Session finished business on Friday. With over 1,000 bills filed during the session, legislators were able to pass around 500 new laws all while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
Summit and Wasatch County Sen. Ron Winterton said all-in-all the session finished without a hitch.
"We were able to conduct the people's business without having any glitches," Winterton said. "We had a couple of senators that were out for a couple of weeks with COVID and a couple of the interns. Other than that, I'd say there's probably close to 350 people on the hill, any given time, and we were able to pull off the legislative session very successfully."
While lawmakers were trying to avoid getting sick, they also were creating legislation revolving around the pandemic.
One bill, which passed the legislature, would limit the executive powers of the governor and state health departments during public health emergencies.
Under the bill, the executive branch would have to inform legislators before declaring health orders. After the order has been in place for 30-days, lawmakers would make the final call on if the order should be extended.
Winterton said during much of the pandemic, lawmakers felt left out of the loop. This bill would ensure that lawmakers are aware of health orders in the state.
"And it's really hard to to try to explain to your constituents what's going on or why it's going on when personally, I wasn't involved in the conversations I would hear on the news or something that’s how informed they were keeping us," he said.
Winterton said the bill opens the door for local input on health emergencies because checks and balances will also be reflected on a local level - meaning county councils could overrule health orders from local health departments.
"There are communities that never did get affected by the COVID and yet have the stringent requirements of the masks and the protocols," he said. "And not to talk that down, but I think it's important that the locals have a say in it."
Another bill would expand local power with mask mandates.
HB294 would end the statewide mask mandate by April 10. It would also remove the mandate in schools by July 1. However, the bill also allows local health departments to extend mandates with the authority of the county council.
Winterton said the state health department, the governor and the legislature feel it will be safe to return to normal by those dates.
"We feel like with the vaccinations, the cases, we will have better than half the population already through this crisis, and feel like that will be in a better place and that the restriction should be relaxed, so that we can get back to having free enterprise and commerce going on," he said.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said at his weekly COVID-19 briefing last week that “99% of the economy has been open for some time.” In fact, Utah’s economy recovered better than expected. The legislature had an extra $1.4 billion in one time spending this session.
Winterton said that was due to budget cuts last year in anticipation of economic blows from pandemic.
"Each time we go into a special session, we had to address the budget," he said. "As we ended the session last year, we actually pulled back a lot of the things that we had funded. We have a constitutional balance here of the budget, so we can't spend money we don't have. So we did pull in a lot of money back from what we had allocated last year."
Utah was able to boost education funding, including an increase in Weighted Pupil Unit funding and teacher bonus checks.
Many of the bills passed in the Utah legislature now wait for the governor’s signature of approval.