First day of historic Utah special session attempts to balance COVID-19 impact

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By Decker Westenburg and Marina McNairy

The Utah Legislature convened in a special session Thursday with just a few technical glitches and a few new beards on male lawmakers’ faces.

The House began meeting at 9 a.m., followed by the Senate at 2 p.m. Both bodies experienced technology issues as their leaders conducted business from the State Capitol while lawmakers joined from across the state via computer video feeds.

The House live stream on channel 9.2, the Utah Education Network, did not stream the session over the air until about 30 minutes in. During the Senate floor meeting, legislators had to switch meeting platforms after being delayed for nearly an hour.

Notably absent on the schedule were public committee meetings. Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, argued that as a matter of precedent, the legislature should continue to have committee meetings during virtual sessions. The Alliance for a Better Utah and Utah Media Coalition had raised concerns that the lack of committee hearings and difficulty in accessing public comments during the virtual session violated the spirit of the state’s open meetings law.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, is shown on a TV screen during the Utah Legislature’s virtual special session from the House chambers at the Utah State Capitol Thursday, April 16, in Salt Lake City. In a historic, first-ever virtual special session, the Utah House voted to pass several bills seeking to respond to the global coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, agreed and said this would likely be “something they will be working on for future sessions.”

Lawmakers thanked healthcare workers throughout the world for their personal sacrifices and efforts to combat and respond to the “unprecedented challenges facing the state and the world as a result of the spread of COVID-19.”

HCR301, sponsored by Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, acknowledges and expresses gratitude for the efforts of individuals and organizations responding to the pandemic caused by COVID-19. 

Ballard was personally impacted by the pandemic, losing her father, Bob Garff, recently to COVID-19. Garff was a former Speaker of Utah’s House of Representatives.

“We have a new appreciation for what it means to be an essential worker,” said Rep. Suzane Harris, D-Draper. She works as a physician anesthesiologist.

The concurrent resolution passed unanimously through the House and Senate.  

The House and the Senate passed three bills quickly throughout the day. HB3001 would make changes to the state’s bond limits and HB3002 would modify state budget implementation. HB3003 would move the date to file state income taxes to July rather than April 15.

The Legislature also addressed the upcoming primary elections in HB3006. The Senate and House passed a bill that would allow for the election to primarily be conducted by mail. It will also allow for the possibility of drive-through voting in counties that choose to participate. Legislators raised concerns about the cost this would have on residents, including the price of a stamp to mail a ballot. The bill would allow voters to mail ballots without postage.

The Senate also passed a variety of bills scheduled to go before House Friday. 

SB3001 adjusts financial appropriations in response to the pandemic. 

SB3002, sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who is a pharmacist, provides immunity for health care workers who are caring for a pandemic patient. It also allows for investigational drug use during a public health emergency under certain circumstances. 

SB3003 would waive the one-week waiting period to receive unemployment. Sen. Ann Milner, R-Ogden, said the waiver would only be used if the governor or president calls a state of emergency.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, ended the Senate’s session by commending the Legislature for its use of technology, especially members who “may be a bit older than some.” He thanked the IT staff members for all of their hard work throughout the day. 

BYU journalism students Decker Westerberg and Marina McNairy previously covered the 2020 Utah Legislative General Session. Westerberg is covering the special session from Reno and McNairy is reporting from Los Angeles.

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