It’s over. What happened this legislative session?

The 45 day session is finally over after a roller coaster ride of big issues, successes and failures. Action Utah tracked 69 bills and appropriations requests, following the issues that data shows Utahns care about most and taking the stance of the majority on those issues. Here are the highlights of the 2019 Session from our perspective.

Biggest Issues of the Session

  1. Medicaid Expansion – The debate over Medicaid Expansion began on Day 1 of the Session with a bitter battle between Prop 3 proponents and conservative legislators. Thoughtful compromise legislation, HB 210, was eventually included into a Medicaid repeal and replace bill, along with stopgap measures in an effort to appease both sides. Read more in our Issue Update.
  2. Tax Reform – An ambitious plan to create the largest overhaul of our tax system tried and failed this session, clouding conversations about other important issues and throwing state funding — even in a budget surplus year —  into uncertainty. In the end, legislators have decided to revisit the issue during a Special Session this summer, and a compromise budget offered some one-time funding with an urgency to decide on tax reform before committing to ongoing funding for certain budget items.
  3. Air Quality – Governor Herbert stunned the legislature and clean air community when he announced $100M in his proposed budget for air quality – a 100-fold increase from previous air quality spending. Though clean air measures received a far more modest number at nearly $29M, the appropriated amount is a significant coup that will hopefully spark higher ongoing funding and greater prioritization by the legislature for Utah’s #2 top issue.
  4. Hate Crimes – The biggest successful heavy lift of the session was the passage of SB 103 Victim Targeting Penalty Enhancements to enhance the penalties on hate crimes. Sen. Dan Thatcher saw his multi-year effort finally reach the finish line after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declared it would not oppose the effort. Critics point to the last-minute addition of bias against political belief as a dilution of the bill, but others say it was necessary to pass this significant step forward.
  5. Ballot Measures – Legislators tinkered with all three ballot initiatives that passed last November by making significant changes to Prop 2 within weeks of the election, significant changes to Prop 3 starting on the first day of the Session and changes to the ballot initiative process to increase signature requirements, post signatures publicly and delay implementation of initiatives. Although it was not touched this Session, Prop 4 could be in danger as well.

Updates by Issue

Health Care

Besides Medicaid, this Session saw several bills tackling transparency of medical and pharmaceutical costs in an effort to help reduce costs for consumers. HB 178 will create a health care price transparency tool for certain medical procedures and HB 370 will create greater transparency from pharmacy benefit managers. An effort to import pharmaceutical drugs from Canada to lower prescription drug costs picked up momentum over last year’s effort, but ultimately failed.  SB 223 to address pharmaceutical pricing transparency was introduced too late to get a vote this session.

Air Quality

Advocates scrambled to piece together proposals to make use of the potential $100M budget. Turns out there are many, many ways the state can clean up our air, given the funding! With just over $28M appropriated, many excellent clean air measures (including an AU fave, the Cleaner Car bill) failed. Good measures that passed with partial funding include a state teleworking program, woodburning stove replacements, electric vehicle chargers, replacement of older state vehicles, and a free fare days pilot program. A bill to place a price on carbon, HB 304, got a committee hearing this year after failing to do so last year, and will be studied in Interim. Climate change language landed in two resolutions this year, but was removed via an amendment from HCR 5 on wildfire mitigation. SCR 6, endorsing advanced nuclear technology referenced climate change and the need to curb carbon emissions.

Education

Despite funding uncertainty created by the tax reform debate, education funding was grated to grow the weighted pupil unit by 4% – a significant amount, but not as much as the 6.5% that was requested. An effort to hijack income tax — traditionally used exclusively for education — with funding for social services fortunately failed. We were pleased to see the passage of HB 188 T.H. Bell Program Amendments to increase recruitment and retainment of teachers in Utah, HB 260 to help more low-income Utahns attend college and SB 166 to improve the quality of school readiness programs and preschool education. HB 198 would have made a simple fix to the school accountability system, but ran out of time on the last night. Find more on education funding here.

Suicide Prevention

Unfortunately, the two most important bills for suicide prevention this year, HB 209 Extreme Risk Protective Order (also known as ‘red flag’ law) and HB 399 Prohibition of the Practice of Conversion Therapy on Minors failed to pass. Other bills that did pass include HB 373 will fund school based mental health support, HB 17 to educate firearms owners about firearms safety and HB 393 to increase suicide prevention and mental health treatment services and resources.

Strengthening Families

Traditionally a lower priority for the State Legislature, this area of bills had winners and losers. Notable winners include the hate crimes bill and maternal mental health appropriations. Late interest was shown for good childcare support bill HB 333 and paid family leave bill HB 442 – but not in time to pass these bills this session. Housing and homeless advocates pushed hard this year for affordable housing measures, and while SB 34 makes a great step toward development planning, it failed to receive any appropriations toward the effort, and HB 386 failed without getting any additional funding for the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund. Put on the back burner once again were unpaid family leave and workplace protections. We were pleased to see the passage of HB 47 Early Childcare Coordination Amendments in the Education category to create greater efficiencies and resource sharing among Utah agencies and services.

Good Government

A good, bipartisan bill SB 61 passed to give counties greater flexibility to determine closing hour on the final day of early voting. HCR 16 established Utah Women’s Voter Registration Day on February 14th to honor the 150th anniversary of the first day women cast votes in Utah. Unfortunately, HB 259, which would have eliminated voter confusion by removing the straight ticket voting option, ran out of time in the final hours of the session.

For more details on specific bills, check out our BILL TRACKER.

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