Report from the Senate

Ralph Okerlund, Senator

Friday, we celebrated Juneteenth. This holiday commemorates the emancipation of the last remaining African American slaves in the Confederacy. To celebrate this important holiday, we had a citation read on the senate floor recognizing the importance of the holiday and that “the observance of Juneteenth is more important than ever and provides an opportunity for people from all races, religions, nationalities and backgrounds to unite in order to protect the constitutional rights of all people.” 

The Utah Department of Health reported 299,312 total coronavirus tests administered June 22, with 17,906 total positive cases, 9,863 estimated recovered cases, 1,192 total hospitalizations, 171 current hospitalizations and 158 total fatalities. 

The Central Utah Public Health Department has reported 5,251 tests administered, 107 total confirmed cases, 46 recovered cases, four current hospitalized and no fatalities.

Gov. Gary Herbert approved nine rural counties to move from the “yellow” to “green” COVID-19 risk category. This marks 10 total counties in the “green” phase including Beaver, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, Garfield, Kane, Millard, Piute, Uintah and Wayne counties. Salt Lake City has chosen to stay in the “orange” phase while the rest of the state is still in the “yellow” phase. I expect we will continue to see more counties move to “green” in the coming weeks. 

Special Session — Last week we convened in a special session called by the governor for the primary purpose of fixing our budget. We passed 27 bills. A few of the main highlights from the special session include — 

• Budget — Our most recent June revenue estimates project a deficit in the general and education funds in FY 2020-2021 of $93 million in one-time funding and $757 million in ongoing funding.

We worked hard to strike a careful balance between meeting immediate needs and preparing for the future. A combination of targeted budget cuts and utilization of existing rainy day funds put the Legislature in a position to pass a budget that will restart the state’s economy.

The budget bills we passed include a 2.2 percent overall increase for education funding. This includes a 1.8 percent increase to the weighted pupil unit, in addition to the $50 million in enrollment growth funded in the base budget. We also used $125 million from CARES Act funding to bolster online access for public and higher education. 

The pandemic has increased our needs for many of our social services and so we passed a 5.4 percent increase in overall social services funding. This includes increased funding for Medicaid growth, mental health services, homelessness resources and affordable housing. 

Overall, we reduced the state budget by 1.7 percent by utilizing an estimated $680 million in rainy day and reserve funds. Between long-term and working rainy day funds, nearly a third of the state’s reserves are being utilized.  

• COVID-19 — We passed 14 pieces of legislation to address the pandemic. Including H.B. 5010 COVID-19 Economic Recovery Program, which will help speed our economic recovery. This bill distributes $62 million through several different programs to help unemployed individuals, businesses and all Utahns.

 During one of our previous special sessions we passed a bill to distribute funding for rent and mortgage assistance. We found that in practice the requirements were too rigid and much of the funding was still waiting to be disbursed. S.B. 5005 Rent and Mortgage Assistance Amendments, allows the state to begin distributing residential rental assistance more quickly and increases the number and types of businesses that qualify for existing state rental assistance programs. 

In addition, we passed H.J.R 504 to extend the governor’s declared state of emergency until Aug. 20, when we will reconsider the extension. While we are pleased that more of our state is heading toward “green” we still have hot spots in our state and this extension will facilitate access to federal dollars so we can address these hot spot areas and allow us to provide testing and support for those impacted by COVID-19. We also passed H.B. 5009 Emergency Management Act Procurement Process Amendments, to increase transparency by requiring the governor to report to the Legislature at least 24 hours before expending more than $2 million of federal funds under emergency powers.  

• Public Safety — We took the first of many anticipated steps in working toward police reforms that will keep all members of our community safe. We passed H.B. 5007 Peace Officer Amendments, which bans the use of the knee-to-neck restraints by peace officers and removes trainings on chokeholds from officer training standards. Many of our law enforcement departments in Utah already exclude chokeholds from training, this brings uniformity to our state. 

We also took steps toward protecting our first responders from this pandemic. S.B. 5006 allows a public safety worker to seek a warrant to require an individual to be tested for COVID-19 if that individual spit, coughed, or bit them while potentially infected. This option already exists for cases of HIV, Hepatitis or AIDS, this simply adds COVID-19 to the statute.

 I was very proud of our police response to the protests and riots that were so well covered in SLC and around the country. Our officers showed tremendous restraint and professionalism in the face of the hatred and hate crimes that were hurled at them. I respect everyone’s right to protest but I cannot accept the looting burning and destruction of the riots. Thanks to all of our officers who do so much to serve the public and keep us safe. You are appreciated more than you know. 

I hope to continually keep you informed – 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. 

  

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