Utah lawmakers begin virtual sessions in wake of COVID-19 pandemic


By Marina McNairy and Decker Westenburg

For the first time in Utah history, lawmakers will be convening while sitting at home during a historic all-virtual special session.

The special session, which could last up to 10 days, will open on Thursday to address concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a news release from the Utah Legislature, some of the issues on the table will include “formally accepting federal emergency funding; extending the deadline for submitting state income taxes to July 15, 2020; ensuring access to medication; and preparing for the June primary election.”

Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in the release, “We are working together to achieve the most favorable outcomes in our state’s fight against the virus, protecting Utah’s families as well as Utah’s businesses.”

This is the first time that the Legislature has ever convened in an electronic virtual meeting. It will also be the first time that the legislature will use the change in the Utah Constitution that allows lawmakers to call a special session. In 2018, voters approved a change to the Utah Constitution that allowed lawmakers rather than the governor to call a special session. 

During the final days of the regular legislative session, lawmakers passed a joint rules resolution that will allow the legislature to conduct electronic legislative sessions.

The bill allows the session to move online under four different circumstances. The four conditions include the following:

  • If the governor declares a state of emergency. 
  • If the speaker and president decide that it is too dangerous to physically meet at the Capitol.
  • If the president and speaker decide that a physical meeting at any location is too dangerous. 
  • If there’s some type of natural disaster, enemy attack, etc., that prevents at a minimum 25% of a body from attending its meetings, then the House speaker and the Senate president can allow that 25% or more to attend the meetings electronically.

A virtual chamber has yet to be set up, but the legislature has provided ways that would still allow the legislature to meet. 

During a Senate floor meeting on March 11, bill sponsor Sen. Daniel Hemmert, R-Orem, shared that SJR16 would comply with all Open Public Meetings Act, but that it could come in various forms. 

“This bill doesn’t spell out exactly that it has to be video, but the goal is it would be some type of video mechanism,” Hemmert said. “There’s software out there that allows for large attendee meetings. This bill is not prescriptive, it could be telephonically, but the goal would be for a visual or video type software.”

Utahns are being encouraged to participate in the session submitting inquiries and feedback directly to their legislators. Public comments can also be submitted to le.utah.gov. All Floor proceedings will be streamed directly on the legislative website and broadcast on KUEN channel 9.2. 

The Daily Universe will also provide updates throughout the session.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email