Report from the Senate

Ralph Okerlund

I appreciate your patience and diligence in following the health guidelines during this pandemic. To achieve the best outcomes in flattening the curve, we need everyone to do their part. We are seeing exciting progress, but we must continue to follow social distancing and sanitizing protocols. As of April 27, the Utah Department of Health has reported 100,195 tests administered, 4,233 positive cases, 349 hospitalizations and 39 fatalities. 

Based on the data for my Senate district, I am in favor of pushing forward with a responsible reopening of our businesses and the economy. Dine-in options for restaurants will become available again May 1, and gyms will also be allowed to reopen providing these businesses follow identified best practice protocols. 

Utah’s unemployment insurance claims for the week of April 12-18, dropped 18 percent from the previous week to 19,751. However, this is still a significant increase in average weekly claims compared to 2019 reports. More than 7,000 individuals have filed for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program funded by the CARES Act. Many Utah employers have begun paying their employees again after receiving an SBA loan or are preparing to reopen their businesses. 

The governor called for us to convene in a fourth special session to deal with urgent issues pertaining to COVID-19. However, the Utah Constitution only allows special sessions called by the Legislature to appropriate less than one percent of the previous year’s budget. Governor Herbert called the Legislature into the fourth special session to allow us to make greater changes to our budget appropriations and amend a few pieces of legislation passed during the general legislative session. 

Here are the bills we passed last week during the two special sessions — 

• Third Special Session, HB 3005, Pandemic and Emergency Response Act — As a state government, we have not had to deal with this level of crisis in many decades. We are learning that there is room for improvement in how we work together as state leaders during pandemics. HB 3005 creates increased collaboration between the different branches of state government during a pandemic. HB 3005 will help ensure greater cooperation and consultation between the governor and the Legislature by requiring the governor to provide notice 24 hours before issuing a state order — or before suspending statutes or rules during a pandemic emergency. This bill also allows the Legislature to terminate certain emergency actions made by the governor, including orders and suspended rules. HB 3005 preserves the governor’s authority to make immediate decisions without the 24-hour notice requirement when there is an imminent threat. 

 • SB 3006, COVID-19 Financial Relief Funding — Last week we passed SB 3006, COVID-19 Financial Relief Funding in the senate, but the house did not have the opportunity to consider the bill. This week we recalled the bill in the senate in order to make a few modifications including additional guidelines. For example, a more clear definition of an agricultural operation, and provisions in the bill now include a zero-interest emergency loan program for agricultural operations within the Department of Agriculture and Food. SB 3006 was also amended to require participating businesses to prove they’ve sustained losses due to COVID-19.

 Overall, the bill establishes three programs — financial relief funding through agricultural grants, residential housing assistance and commercial rental assistance — to provide targeted financial assistance to individuals and businesses financially harmed by COVID-19. These programs will be operated entirely through federal funds.

• SB 3007, COVID-19 Provisions — During these unprecedented times, businesses need confidence they can open and operate without fear that someone may bring a claim against them for negligence simply for allowing the public into their facilities. SB 3007 helps provide businesses immunity from claims due to COVID-19 exposure during business operations. The bill provides immunity for businesses, churches, schools and other types of facilities and organizations from claims such as civil liability. It does not apply if there is willful misconduct, reckless infliction of harm or intentional infliction of harm.

• HB 4001, Pandemic Response Federal Funds Appropriations — The primary purpose of the fourth special session was to allow us to appropriate additional federal funds made available through the CARES Act to state agencies. HB 4001 allocated the following funds — 

$147 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund for tracking, testing, protective equipment, treatment medication and residential and agricultural/business assistance.

$2 billion in unemployment insurance benefits. 

$60 million in additional Medicaid funding through enhanced Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (FMAP). 

 $200 million in federal disaster funds as part of the presidential disaster declaration for Utah.

$22.3 million for capital, planning and operating assistance to support public transportation in rural areas.

$4.3 million through election security grants.

$5.5 million through criminal justice grants. 

This bill also appropriates $6 million for securing potential treatments for COVID-19. This funding can be used for medications that may help with the treatment of COVID-19. The funding is intended to enable state agencies to acquire potential treatments to help treat patients and lessen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our state. 

Most federal education funds were not included in this bill and will be appropriated at a later date. 

• HB 356, Railroad Amendments passed in both the senate and house during the general session; it was later vetoed by the governor. Rather than call the Legislature into a veto override session, bill sponsors worked with the governor’s office to make a few adjustments acceptable to all parties. This collaboration resulted in HB 4002.

During the earlier tax reform effort, it was determined all forms of transportation needed to have an associated fuel tax to help maintain transportation infrastructure. This bill repeals the state sales and use tax exemption for sales of fuel to a rail carrier for use in a locomotive engine and deposits the resulting revenue into the general fund. 

Eighty percent of revenues will go into a restricted account to be appropriated during the legislative process, and will be earmarked specifically for improved rail crossings and other rail-oriented projects. Another 10 percent will go into an account administered by UDOT with funds granted to local jurisdictions to improve rail safety. The final 10 percent will go to environmental impact studies in local jurisdictions with rail infrastructure projects.

• HB 4003, Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship Program — During the general session, we passed HB 332, Special Needs Scholarship Amendments, to provide proven education options for students with unique needs. This is another bill that the governor vetoed, so the sponsors worked with the governor to create a compromised version of the bill, resulting in HB 4003. 

This bill extends opportunities to special needs students to attend private schools or receive alternative education, such as speech therapy and occupational therapy. Through this bill students may qualify for the scholarship program if they have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or are eligible to receive certain services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

• HB 4004, Bar Establishment License Renewal Amendments — Many businesses have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Two examples of small businesses hit hardest are restaurants and bars. Though many restaurants have been able to scrape by on takeout business, bars did not have the same option. Annual bar license renewals are due at the end of May, and bars are required to pay a renewal fee. HB 4004 gives bars a 90-day grace period so they do not have to come up with that renewal fee until the end of August. They will still have to go through the normal renewal process, but they will be given more time to pay the annual fee.

Please continue to reach out with your concerns and suggestions. I’m grateful for the opportunity you’ve given me to serve in this capacity, it has truly been an honor to serve you.

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