September has been a very eventful month in the legislature. We convened for a special session, participated in a Long-Term Planning Summit and we held our normal monthly interim committee meetings. Here are some of the highlights from the month:

• Special Session

Most of the work of the legislature is accomplished during the 45-day general legislative session that runs from January to March of each year. Occasionally, pressing issues that can’t wait for the general session arise. When this happens, the governor can convene a special session for legislators to consider issues and address matters that require urgent attention.

Governor Herbert issued a call for the sixty-third Utah State Legislature to convene its first special session Monday, Sept. 16, in conjunction with September’s regularly scheduled interim week. The purpose of the special session was to address issues with the dispensing of medical cannabis, appropriate census funding and to make several other technical adjustments. Here are the highlights:

• Medical Cannabis

In an effort to get medical cannabis to patients before the March 2020 deadline outlined in HB 3001, Utah Medical Cannabis Act, we needed to make some changes to keep things on track. When dealing with complicated legislative matters, it is typical to need adjustments as we develop a new program or comprehensive public policy. Medical cannabis is no exception. The changes recently made were not the first and will likely not be the last. During the special session, we passed SB 1002, Medical Cannabis Amendments, which altered the number of cannabis dispensaries, increased legal protections for patients and paved the way for cannabis businesses to move forward. 

• Census

Every 10 years, the United States Department of Commerce performs the decennial census. The information collected in the census has a vast effect on Utahns. The information is used to make data-driven decisions – everything from land-use planning to economic development to city and county classifications to allocation to congressional and legislative representation. We, as a state, have an interest in ensuring its accuracy.

We learned the federal government altered how the 2020 census canvassing will be conducted. It is shifting from a paper-based process to a primarily online approach and is now relying on states to provide outreach and public awareness. With the outreach responsibility shifting to the state, it became necessary for us to appropriate money to inform citizens about the census and create educational materials, especially for those in rural areas, areas with limited internet access and areas with aging residents.

HB 1001, Supplemental Appropriations Amendments, allocated $1 million to support an accurate census count through public awareness outreach campaigns to encourage residents to complete the census and grants for local governments and non-profit organizations to increase participation.

Census Day is April 1, 2020. Online responses will be available on March 23, 2020.

• Alcohol

During the 2019 General Session, we passed a law allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell beer with 4.0 percent alcohol content, after learning major beer producers would be phasing out the production of beer with 3.2 percent alcohol content. The 4.0 beer is permitted to be sold in grocery and convenience stores Nov. 1, 2019, but the original law did not permit store owners to take possession of the product prior to this date. This created a logistical challenge for businesses. HB 1002, Beer Transition Period Amendments, simply addresses the logistic and inventory concern by permitting retailers to have the new product in storage a week in advance, so it is ready to be placed on the shelves Nov. 1. 

• Election Date Changes

In 2019 we passed a bill that clarified and cleaned up our elections code. After it passed, we realized an unforeseen calendaring consequence that occurs every seven years. 2020 is one of those unique calendar years with fewer options for political parties to hold their elections based on the deadlines in law. SB 1001, Election Code Date Changes, changes the primary election date in 2020 to June 30, as well as certification dates so the parties, county clerks and Lieutenant Governor’s office can have time to do their jobs properly. 

• Settlement

In Utah, a public officer acquitted of a crime for acts committed as an officer or employee of the state is entitled to recover attorney fees and court costs according to state statute. Financial settlements of more than one million require approval by the governor and the legislature. A jury acquitted John Swallow of criminal charges accusing him of crimes. As such he is entitled to recover his attorney fees as negotiated by the Utah Attorney General’s Office. We passed HJR 101, Joint Resolution Approving Swallow Settlement and HB 1001, Supplemental Appropriations Amendments, in short, so we could pay a bill that we are statutorily required to pay. 

• Tax Incentive Oversight Amendments 

HB 1003, Tax Incentive Oversight Amendment, is a technical language change to a bill passed during the 2019 General Session. It modifies amendments to certain tax incentives regarding the review process required by an independent certified public accountant (CPA). The statute will be adjusted from “attest” to “review and report.” The change provides CPAs with the ability to determine the right level of scrutiny when reviewing tax credit transactions to assure accountability and accuracy of tax incentive requests of recipients.

• Long-Term Planning

Every other year, the legislature organizes a long-term planning summit. This gives us an opportunity to step back from tackling today’s needs and look to the future and consider what choices we can make today that will make for a better tomorrow. The summit includes presentations from experts as well as breakout sessions where we as legislators can engage and dialogue on possible ways to address big issues like housing affordability, transportation and water. 

• Interim Highlights

Our interim committees discussed big issues this month ranging from facial recognition technology use to e-cigarettes.

Thanks for following me along in my legislative journey. I hope to continually keep you informed about my work on the Hill – likewise, please keep in touch – I’d love to hear your insights and opinions. I can also be reached by email at rokerlund@le.utah.gov.

I’m grateful for the opportunity you’ve given me to serve in this capacity. We live in a unique and special place. Thank you for all you do to make Utah the best state in the nation – and thanks for paying attention.

Ralph Okerlund

Utah State Senate, District 24

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