Day 45 | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Day 45 

Utah Lawmakers take a victory lap, and a parting shot, at the close of an aggressively normal legislative session

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click to enlarge Stormy skies pass over the Utah State Capitol building on Friday, March 4. - BENJAMIN WOOD
  • Benjamin Wood
  • Stormy skies pass over the Utah State Capitol building on Friday, March 4.

CAPITOL HILL—Before the Utah House and Senate gavelled in Friday morning, members of the capitol press, security, staff and assorted hangers-on had already begun speculating on when the session would adjourn. Not whether lawmakers would conclude before the midnight deadline that turns their unpassed bills into pumpkins, but how early the ladies and gentlemen of the royal ball would simply pack up their things and go home.

House Speaker Brad Wilson—the more press-averse of the two chamber leaders—was relaxed and casual as he faced down reporters, alone without his deputies, during the last of his weekly press conferences. He joked about his days “spinning tapes” as a college radio dj. He laughed off a question about a voucher bill, supported by his leadership team, failing in spectacular fashion.

“They didn’t feel like that bill was ready for prime time,” he said of his House colleagues.

When would the House adjourn? Likely before midnight, Wilson said, as they were running ahead of schedule. “I probably just jinxed it by saying that,” he added.

That jinx ultimately arrived in the form of a bill banning transgender children from participating in school sports. A softer version—creating a commission to adjudicate instances of transgender participation—had been languishing on the Senate's voting board. But with roughly three hours to go before the session's midnight deadline, a surprise substitute sponsored by Riverton Republican Sen. Dan McCay dropped like a bomb and squeaked through the Senate on a 16-13 vote. The House subsequently voted 46-29 for the ban.

But within minutes of the Senate vote, and before the House had approved the bill, Gov. Spencer Cox was standing in front of a room of reporters, promising to veto the legislation.

"Yeah, I’ll veto this as soon as it's here," Cox said. "We’ll just veto it and give them another opportunity. We’ll work on it together."

Lt. Gov. Diedre Henderson—a former state senator who once led a walkout by all the chamber's female members—was also quick to condemn the bill, tweeting that a veto is the right call for the governor to make.

"In my 10 years on Capitol Hill I have never felt as sick over the debate or outcome of a bill as I did over this one tonight," she wrote.

While the emotional debate threw a wrench into the otherwise humming legislative machinery, Cox's preemptive strike added to a sense of the final day of the session being effectively over before it began.

Despite the size of the budget—a staggering $25 billion thanks to federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars and other short-term cash infusions—the process of putting it together had been remarkably straightforward this year. Whatever disagreements occurred behind closed doors didn’t spill into public view, as they have at times in the past, and the glut of one-time funds meant that so many groups got so much of what they asked for, the last-ditch calls for additional investment were relatively few and far between.

“It’s an eye-popping amount of money,” Wilson said of the budget. “But I think we’ve invested it well.”

Before McCay spoiled the party, at the last of the Senate's daily press conferences, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, ran through the year's budget highlights like an announcer calling the stats of a starting lineup: record spending on education; record spending on social services; hundreds of millions of dollars for water conservation and restoration; tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing; a new $40 million earmark for parks and recreation. And on top of all that, he said, a tax cut.

“We do all that? That’s a pretty phenomenal session,” Adams said

None of this is to say the session was broadly devoid of drama. But the flare-ups that did occur were of a predictable, pedestrian nature. Even the 11th-hour fireworks over transgender athletics was in keeping with similar, maddening final-day stunts pulled by lawmakers over the years.

"Some of the worst decisions get made at the last minute," Cox said.

The Legislature took hard seltzers away, because they can. The media was up in arms for a day or two over nitpicky and esoteric rules around public access. Large numbers of a particular type of concerned citizen packed into a handful of committee hearings, disrupting the genteel proceedings and giving oxygen to some truly baffling points of view. Lawmakers squared off over the merits of mail voting, the decency of “fly-by-night” cannabis clinics and whether Kevin Costner should be given a little money to make a lot of movies in Southern Utah.

Those moments passed, and the normal returned—a thick blanket of normal on top of our heads after two years of deeply atypical state government.

“We try to focus on the positive,” Adams responded to a question about his disappointments during the session. “The negative, we try to forget.”

But no matter how many COVID-related policies lawmakers jettisoned, no matter how quickly masks disappeared from the aggregate masses on Capitol Hill, the Coronavirus is still among us. And in many ways, the state has yet to see just how profoundly the pandemic has reshaped our lives and what will be required to mitigate those effects.

“Our kids have lost time, in terms of skills development,” said Renee Pinkney, president-elect of the Utah Education Association. “We are going to need to have increased funding just to help kids get back to where they should be.”

Pinkney, who takes over the reigns at the state’s largest teachers union this summer, credited lawmakers with significantly increasing education funding—the Legislature approved a 6% bump in per-students spending (“the WPU”) and a 9% increase overall. But she emphasized that schools and teachers have been under significant strain and the effects of the last two years won’t simply subside along with case counts.

“We’ve been in fight-or-flight [mode] since March 2020,” Pinkney said. “Because of the pandemic you either fight or you flee, and teachers are fleeing."

Speaking generally, Pinkney said the state will need to hire teachers to replace the ones who left, improve conditions for the ones who stayed and expand programs to give students the extra help they need—and to relocate and reengage many who effectively vanished—to catch back up from pandemic learning loss.

And the pandemic is only part of the pressure against teachers, Pinkney said. The trends in national politics that have pulled educators into fights around race, gender and other sensitive topics show no signs of slowing.

“I don’t see the culture wars suddenly ceasing,” Pinkney said. “We need to be able to help educators navigate that.”

In the end, the 2022 legislative session concluded at midnight—just like normal.

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Benjamin Wood

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