This is Part II of a four-part series looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2022 General Session of the Utah State Legislature. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to the session, but rather a quick glance at the highlights (and lowlights) of what happened this year on Capitol Hill in four categories: Equal Rights, Strong Communities, Good Government, and Sustainable Future.
At Better Utah, we focus on strong communities because they are foundational to building a strong state.
We believe everyone deserves to live healthy, happy lives in safe neighborhoods and thriving communities. All families should be able to afford housing, put food on the table, and pay the doctor. Children of all races across the state should have safe environments in which to learn, and deserve the education that comes from quality teachers who are valued and paid for their essential work. Working Utahns should all have access to stable jobs, living wages, and secure healthcare.
Here are some of the ways that the Utah Legislature helped or impeded the building of strong communities in our state during this year’s legislative session:
One of the core responsibilities of our state government is to “provide for the establishment and maintenance of the state’s education systems.” (UT Const. art. X, § 1) As such, public education accounts for the largest portion of annual state funding (40% in 2022) and a large number of the bills considered each session impact education policy.
The budget passed by lawmakers this year included $383 million in new education funding, including a 6% WPU (“weighted pupil unit”) increase, $10 million for teacher bonuses, and $64 million to pay teachers for “professional hours” (H.B. 396). And while there was early momentum behind a proposal from Rep. Steve Waldrip that would fund optional full-day kindergarten in every school district across the state (H.B. 193), only $12.2 million of the full request was appropriated for a more limited expansion to fewer districts.
According to a report from Voices for Utah Children published at the end of last year, Utah has increased education funding by 33% since 2008. With this increase, Utah finally pulled ahead of Idaho in 2021 to claim the spot of second lowest per-pupil education funding in the nation! This is great progress but we are still second-to-last! We are far behind the national average in per-pupil education funding, spending about $5,000 less on each student compared to the average state.
Our low per-pupil funding is not solely because we have a lot of kids here in Utah—an excuse that lawmakers like to use when asked why we are not doing more. That same report from Voices for Utah Children also points out that while funding in real dollars has increased, our “education effort,” measuring the amount we each contribute toward education as a percent of personal income, has decreased dramatically over the past three decades. We may be investing more overall as a state in our education system due to a larger population and more economic activity, but individually we are each investing less in our schools, teachers, and children than we have in the past.
So please thank your lawmakers for continuing to direct more funding each year toward our public schools. At the same time, however, please ask them to do more. We need to invest more in our children and their teachers, and provide them with the resources they need so that they can succeed and continue building strong communities into the future.
With all of that being said, I have to mention a few issues that came up during the legislative session that could possibly have negative impacts on overall public school funding now and in the future:
Yes, I know that I just told you that education funding was increased this year. However, whenever lawmakers make a big deal about cutting taxes, remember that those cuts are almost always going to be a cut in income tax rates. The Utah Constitution requires that all revenue from income taxes be used for public education, along with some social services. So tax cuts equal cutting future revenues that would otherwise be going toward education, something that we need more of, not less. I’ll go into taxing and spending more in Part III.
Even though Utahns overwhelmingly rejected school vouchers in 2007, conservative lawmakers have not given up on their goal to allow parents to take funding that would otherwise go toward a public school and use it to pay for their student to attend a private school or be homeschooled. Instead of passing a voucher program for all Utah children, lawmakers appear to be following a new strategy of establishing smaller voucher programs that are difficult for public school advocates to oppose, then slowly broadening the scope or size of the programs over time.
For example, take the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship Program. This program was established in 2005 and provides vouchers that allow students with disabilities to attend private schools that can better serve their educational needs. Without going into the need for the government to devote adequate funding to public school special education programs so they can adequately provide such services, we can assume for now that this is an appropriate use of public education funds and was crafted in a way to help those students that need such a program so they can receive an adequate education they cannot otherwise receive in public schools.
However, over the almost two decades since the scholarship program was established, lawmakers have slowly attempted to expand the scope of this program. In 2020, Governor Herbert vetoed a bill to provide scholarships to all students with special needs but he then signed the program into law only a month later after lawmakers amended it to include family income restrictions and a two-year review of the progress of scholarship students under private school special needs programs. Two years later, lawmakers just passed and Governor Cox signed S.B. 62, a bill that expands eligibility for scholarships to cover siblings of students with special needs.
Before the start of the session, GOP leaders circulated a survey and commissioned polling asking Utahns if they supported being able to use their child’s “per-pupil funding” to their choice of private or public school. Feeling emboldened by the results of the poll, Rep. Candice Pierucci and Sen. Kirk Cullimore sponsored legislation, H.B. 331, creating a “Hope Scholarship Program,” with scholarship amounts varying based on a family’s income. After the bill passed out of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, Governor Cox announced that he would veto the legislation.
“You can’t take money that could go to our schools and allow it to go to private schools when you’re not fully funding the education system in our state.” – Governor Spencer Cox (PBS Utah, Feb. 17, 2022)
Following this threat from the Governor, the bill was paused on the House calendar until the final week of the legislative session, when Pierucci introduced a substitute that would have preserved funding for the public schools that children left using a private school voucher. Despite this attempt to hold schools harmless, the new voucher system still would have taken $36 million for the overall education budget, and the bill was defeated in the House by a vote of 22–53.
Over the past few years, lawmakers have been attempting to respond to changes in spending patterns that have created an imbalance between the different revenue streams they use to fund the government. Without going into too much detail, revenues from income taxes, which are restricted to funding education and some social services, are growing faster than revenues from sales taxes. Lawmakers want the flexibility that would come from having both revenue streams in the same pot for use in funding all government programs, rather than having the pot that is filling up faster be restricted for only certain programs. This issue possibly became more pressing after lawmakers caved to pressure from business interests that opposed expanding sales taxes to more broadly cover services that are currently exempt.
To me, that desire for flexibility makes sense, especially considering that Utah is one of the only, if not the only, state that has such restrictions placed on its revenue and spending under its state constitution. However, some public school advocates feel wary trusting lawmakers will adequately fund education without such constitutional guardrails and do not want to give up this tool they can use to advocate for more funding with lawmakers and their constituents. So, it’s understandable that even a simple bill changing the name of the “Education Fund” to the “Income Tax Fund” would be controversial (S.B. 211).
But does this small name change signal further changes down the road? Ultimately, Utah voters would need to approve any proposal from the Legislature to amend the Utah Constitution to adjust how income tax revenues can be used, as they did in 2020. Will we see another proposed constitutional amendment on an upcoming ballot or will lawmakers take another stab at broadening sales taxes on services? If lawmakers do move forward with an attempt to get rid of the restricted Income Tax Fund, will it include education funding guarantees like those proposed by Rep. Ray Ward in 2020?
One of the most controversial changes proposed for schools and teachers at the beginning of the session was an attempt by Rep. Jordan Teuscher to address a perceived lack of transparency around what is being taught in public schools. H.B. 234 would have required school districts to formally adopt the curricula to be taught and teachers would be required to post their syllabi and learning materials online so they could be inspected by parents.
Rep. Teuscher’s bill never left the House Rules Committee, yet it sparked immediate outrage among teachers and education advocates who felt the bill was “insulting, burdensome, and will not succeed in increasing transparency, but will certainly succeed in driving people from our profession.” A petition started by the Utah Education Association opposing the bill and a similar piece of legislation from Sen. Lincoln Fillmore advancing in the Senate received over 30,000 signatures within less than three days.
Soon after, Rep. Teuscher publicly announced he would withdraw the bill from consideration for the session. Unfortunately, his decision to abandon the bill was not an acknowledgement of the poor policy he was pursuing. More so, he and other GOP leaders claimed a “misinformation campaign” surrounded the bill and blamed teachers for “misunderstanding” its requirements.
Of course, this was not an isolated incident, but rather a continuation of the strident attacks that teachers have been facing over the course of the pandemic. Groups of parents, including Utah Parents United, were vociferously opposed to mask mandates in schools, even as COVID-19 continued rapidly spreading through classes, schools, and communities. They were also at the center of local efforts to spread the baseless fears of critical race theory being taught in public schools, making false accusations against teachers and attempting to ban “obscene” books from school libraries.
It should come as no surprise then that we saw other bills directly responding to the “concerns” of these parents during the session. Carrying a bag of these “obscene” books around the Capitol, Rep. Ken Ivory successfully ran H.B. 374, a bill banning “sensitive materials” in schools, defined as materials that are “pornographic or indecent,” despite the ACLU of Utah raising concerns that such prohibitions have often been used to target and ban the works and perspectives of minority voices. And Sen. John Johnson’s bill, S.B. 257, prohibited teaching “divisive concepts” in classrooms, an attempt to stop critical race theory (and most likely any instruction on diversity, equity, and inclusion) from being taught in schools, even though, once again, it is not being taught in public schools.
Even though there are many more bills touching on education policy, I’ll end with a few “tips of the hat” for some good that happened amidst all the controversy:
- Tip of the hat to the senators who voted to adjourn the committee hearing on Sen. Johnson’s divisive concepts bill immediately after he finished presenting the bill, even though he was chair of the committee and they had not yet taken public comment or voted on the bill.
- Tip of the hat to lawmakers, except for Sen. Johnson, all of whom voted in favor of S.B. 244, a bill from Sen. Kirk Cullimore and Rep. Sandra Hollins that requires the inclusion of ethnic studies in the state’s education core standards.
- And a final tip of the hat to Rep. Sandra Hollins for successfully sponsoring H.B. 428, “School Safety Amendments,” a bill that requires school districts to adopt plans to provide harassment- and discrimination-free learning in response to horrific conditions that led to Izzy Tichenor’s death by suicide.
Housing prices all across our state, but especially in our urban areas, are out of control right now. As a basic need, everyone is impacted by the rapid increases in home prices and rent, but it has a severe impact on low-income individuals and families. State leaders have begun taking steps to address the shortage in housing, particularly affordable housing and deepy affordable housing, but we have much more that needs to be done. We must also do more as a state to provide services, shelters, and housing for those who currently are experiencing homelessness, and to do much more upstream by investing in resources and safety nets that people need to avoid situations that could possibly lead to losing one’s home.
A bill with one of the most direct impacts on increasing affordable housing stock across the state is H.B. 462, sponsored by Rep. Steve Waldrip and Sen. Jacob Anderegg. It requires cities that have transit hubs to develop zoning for moderate- and low-income housing around those hubs. Rep. Waldrip asked for $100 million with the bill to help develop that transit-focused housing stock. However, the appropriation request was not prioritized and the bill passed with the new housing development requirements, but no additional funding.
Another controversial aspect of this bill arose during the final hours of the legislative session, as lawmakers representing Summit County and community activists noticed a provision that had been snuck into a substitute without notice. Residents living near Kimball Junction have been organizing over the past year in opposition to a massive housing complex proposed by Dakota Pacific, a development they feel is too dense for the area and will overwhelm current transportation infrastructure. While this smells of NIMBY-ism, those community activists claim that Dakota Pacific lobbied a provision that requires Summit County to approve the development, even though it had been rejected after a public meeting that had a massive number of people show up to speak in opposition.
Although Sen. Jacob Anderegg initially requested $127 million to fund S.B. 238, which establishes a grant program that will emphasize case management and integrated homeless services, he and Rep. Steve Waldrip ended up receiving only $55 million in appropriations as part of the final budget. Of course, this is a great first step in the direction that we need to be going to solve our housing crisis and provide for those who have already been unable to secure stable housing. However, if we had that wide of a gap between the investment needed and the amount actually set aside, then why did GOP lawmakers prioritize a large tax cut? Unfortunately, this is a question that similarly be asked in many areas that desperately need more funding throughout our state government.
With H.B. 440, Rep. Steve Eliason and Sen. Jacob Anderegg are attempting to increase the availability of emergency spaces for the homeless when it is needed over the winter, when it is desperately needed due to the freezing cold temperatures. In addition to a funding appropriation that pays off the debt of the three recently constructed homeless resource centers, as well as the costs of ongoing mitigation for those shelters’ host cities, the bill requires that city leaders within the same county come together and create plans each year to provide winter emergency homeless shelters. If those plans are not deemed sufficient by the Utah Office of Homeless Services, then capacity limits at the homeless resource centers would be increased.
Salt Lake City leaders came out against the bill, arguing that the bill does not do enough to force other cities to shoulder some of the responsibility of providing homeless services, instead expecting SLC to continue as it has in the past. However, if cities don’t host an emergency winter homeless shelter, the bill requires cities to pay into a mitigation fund aimed at helping SLC to defray the extra costs they bear.
Finally, a bill that could have an impact on people being able to secure housing after they’ve experienced situations, whether financial or otherwise, that could make it more difficult to secure housing in the future, is H.B. 359, sponsored by Rep. Marsha Judkins. The bill creates a process by which under certain circumstances, eviction judgments can be expunged from a person’s record. It feels a little bit slimy that Mr. Eviction himself (Sen. Kirk Cullimore) is the Senate sponsor for the bill, but even with his face smiling from the bill page, it’s still a good policy that we’re happy to see in law.
As the legislative session got underway, GOP leaders repeatedly insisted that they were moving forward from the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on other priorities after they had met repeatedly in special session to specifically address issues stemming from the two-year emergency. But then the first two pieces of legislation passed during the session were directly related to the ongoing pandemic.
Having failed to sufficiently expand testing capacity over the course of the pandemic to prepare for a surge in cases, such as that caused by the omicron variant, state officials announced just before the session that they would be suspending the “test to stay” program in public schools. H.B. 183 from Rep. Jordan Teuscher and Sen. Todd Weiler codified this suspension, removing protections that had been put in place to mitigate the spread of the virus among children in schools and requiring the joint agreement of the governor, state superintendent, president of the Senate, and speaker of the House to reinstate the program. Having listened to Speaker Brad Wilson and President Stuart Adams stridently disagree with any pandemic mitigation measures for two years, it was obvious that “test to stay” was gone for good.
S.J.R. 3, sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay and Rep. Candice Pierucci, overturned the mask mandates put in place by health departments and approved by local officials in Salt Lake County, Summit County, and Salt Lake City, just as the omicron variant of COVID-19 was sweeping across the state. While the resolution passed the Senate by a party-line vote, several GOP representatives joined Democrats to vote against it in the House. Later in the session, lawmakers passed H.B. 182, sponsored by Rep. Mark Strong and Sen. Kirk Cullimore, which in part prohibited city mayors (i.e., Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall) from exercising emergency powers to respond to a pandemic or an epidemic.
Just to prove how done they were with talking about the pandemic, lawmakers continued talking about the pandemic right up through the very end of the legislative session. The bill that I felt was one of the worst examples of public policy throughout the entire session was H.B. 60 from Rep. Walt Brooks and Sen. Mike Kennedy. Initially proposed to ban the use of so-called “vaccine passports” by government bodies and businesses operating in the state, H.B. 60 protected “immunity status,” not just immunity to COVID-19, under Utah’s antidiscrimination statutes. Because of the huge implications such a policy would have on a number of scenarios, such as mandatory public school vaccinations or medical staff working in government-funded health facilities, the bill ended up needing a long list of exemptions that kept growing each time the bill was substituted.
Not only did H.B. 60 ignore all the scenarios in which we need vaccines to be required so that we can maintain public health, as well as the immense benefits that general immunization to diseases has brought to our society, it was also extremely shortsighted immediately after we had just lived through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic event. Scientists predict that pandemics could become more common as we become a more globalized society and encroach upon more wild spaces, but imagine if this policy were in place during a pandemic that is more transmissible and even deadlier than COVID-19 and both government and businesses were not able to ask someone about their immunity status once a vaccine is made available.
Luckily, lawmakers ran out of time at the end of the legislative session before they were able to bring the bill up on the Senate floor for a final vote. However, after the clock struck midnight, all those GOP senators that supported the bill stood up as a signal of their support, to stand in solidarity with all of the very persistent crowds that had been showing up on Capitol Hill throughout the session to advocate for passage of the bill. That’s when I knew it was time for me to turn off the livestream and put the session behind me for another year.
House Minority Leader Rep. Brian King has introduced a bill for each of the past four legislative sessions that would have expanded background checks for firearm transfers in Utah. According to polling, 88% of Utahns support requiring background checks for all firearm purchases, a policy that’s also supported by 84% of U.S. voters. With such overwhelming public support, one would imagine that representatives would be responsive to the position of their constituents on this issue. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case:
- In 2019, following the nationwide and local protests demanding stricter firearm regulation in response to the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, Rep. King’s bill was sent to a House Committee but the committee chair at the time, Rep. Lee Perry, never placed the bill on a hearing agenda.
- In 2020, after there were more mass shootings across the country than days in the year, supporters of the bill had the opportunity to express that support in a committee hearing but it was unanimously rejected on a party-line vote.
- In 2021, after a year of fewer mass shootings due to the pandemic still resulted in even higher number of deaths from gun violence, the House Rules Committee never even assigned the bill to a House standing committee, letting it gather dust for seven weeks until it died once the clock struck midnight on the final day of the legislative session.
This year, Rep. King’s H.B. 133 was once again rejected by the eight GOP members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, despite the majority of those giving public comment supported the bill and the vast majority of Utahns continue to support such an expansion of background checks. As King acknowledged during his comments on the bill, instituting universal background checks would not prevent every death due to gun violence or suicide, but we’d be “making a step in the right direction.” For four years now, GOP lawmakers have refused to pass legislation that could save lives and is overwhelmingly supported by their constituents—is this what representation looks like?
While I hope that we will continue to see efforts in future years to pass this sensible and popular reform to our gun laws, I hope Rep. Jeffrey Stenquist doesn’t intend to re-introduced his bill, H.B. 83, creating a system of “optional” background checks for firearm transfers. Instituting optional background checks would do nothing to prevent firearms from falling into the hands of those who should not have them and such a proposal is an insult to all the Utahns that support universal expansion. But even a scheme of optional background checks was not watered down enough for the likes of the GOP supermajority—it also died without ever having left the House Rules Committee.
Not all firearms legislation is dead upon arrival during the legislative session. After passing by party-line votes in both the House and Senate, Governor Cox signed S.B. 115 into law, a bill from Sen. Chris Wilson and Rep. Cory Maloy that reasserts the state’s sole authority over the regulation of firearms, only allowing local governments to prohibit firearms in homeless shelters located within their city boundaries. This bill was a direct response to actions taken by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson requiring background checks for sales of firearms at gun shows taking place in county facilities. Going even further, the legislation creates a path for Utahns to sue state or local authorities they feel have violated the state’s preemption in this area.
Keep an eye out for the 2022 edition of our annual Progress Report! Each year, we take all the votes on dozens of bills in four categories–strong communities, equal rights, good government, and sustainable future–and give each lawmaker grades in each category and for their overall commitment to progressive values. The Progress Report is not only useful to better understand how your representative and senator voted during the legislative session, but is a great tool to help inform your vote during election time!
This year’s Progress Report will be released in May at progressreport.betterutah.org.