Friends and Neighbors,
I hope you’ve all had a good year. In the past year and a half, it seems like anything that could go wrong did and sometimes I think we spend so much time fixating on the wrongs that we forget to reflect on all that is right in our lives. I hope we can all spend a little time in the next few days giving thanks for our many blessings. We live in the greatest state in the country. Our unemployment rate is at a record setting low. Our community is filled with conscientious people who care for their neighbors and devote their time and talents to the betterment of all. In my legislative service, I have found that there are so many people who enjoy serving others and who are happy to provide expert advice to us here in the legislature. We could not do our jobs without our constituents and your input. Thanks for all you do and for the opportunity you’ve given me to serve here. Happy Thanksgiving!
As always, here are some of the issues we have been working on over the last couple of weeks, in our special session and during our interim session. Click on the links to listen to presentations and discussions.
Mandates are not the right approach to managing COVID-19. In Utah, we work to find the right balance between protecting business rights and individual rights.
For years, Utah’s K-12 immunization and vaccination numbers have remained high with medical, religious and personal exemptions. More recently, we have seen success with vaccine exemptions in our state universities.
During the special session, we passed a law, S.B. 2004 Workplace COVID-19 Amendments, to provide employees with COVID-19 vaccine exemptions that give relief to employees for religious, medical or personal reasons. The law also prevents employers from taking adverse action if an employee has a vaccine exemption, including demoting, reducing wages, firing or refusing to hire.
Further, if an employer requires COVID-19 workplace testing, S.B. 2004 requires the employer to pay for it and prohibits an employer from maintaining a record of an employee's proof of vaccination, except under certain conditions. While S.B. 2004 does not include federal contracts, it is a step in the right direction to protect individuals' freedoms to make medical decisions.
Additionally, Utah is working to prevent the Biden administration's questionably unconstitutional vaccine mandate that forces businesses with over a hundred employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine from being implemented.
Currently, Biden's OSHA vaccine mandate was put on hold by a federal court as it goes through the judicial process. In the ruling, the court said, “the petitions give cause to believe there are grave statutory and constitutional issues with the mandate.” We will continue to work to protect individuals’ right to make medical decisions.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is also working with 11 other state attorney generals on a lawsuit to try and stop the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. Learn more about the lawsuit here.
Fiscal Health Update
The Executive Appropriations Committee heard presentations on Utah's fiscal year 2021 budget during the monthly fiscal health update. This year, Utah’s 2021 fiscal year is ending stronger than anticipated. State leaders will have an additional $614 million to appropriate during the 2022 General Session. These additional funds are likely due to federal stimulus money and economic volatility. As we look at our budget during the general session, we will consider how to use these funds for a possible tax cut and ways to generate generational prosperity. The funds will be spent with careful emphasis on fiscal responsibility, including the use of one-time money on one-time costs such as investments in infrastructure and capital improvements. Listen to the update here.
Education and Mental Health Coordinating Council
Over the years, the Legislature has recognized our state's need for expansive mental health resources and has responded by establishing and supporting commissions, councils and working groups to address this need. This month, the Education and Mental Health Coordinating Council heard presentations on a few of these groups' accomplishments and successes. Each group has made remarkable improvements over the years by growing in both numbers and influence. Listen to the presentations here.
For many years, Utah has relied on taxes from gasoline sales to fund maintenance for public roads. However, as more people drive electric vehicles, taxes on gasoline will lose value over time. In 2018, the Legislature instituted an alternative fuel vehicle fee to cover a portion of those vehicles’ contribution to building and maintaining Utah’s transportation system. During this month's interim meetings, the Transportation Interim Committee considered legislation that would create a similar vehicle registration fee for certain fuel-efficient vehicles to help support Utah's transportation system. The committee provided feedback on the drafted legislation and will consider it again at a later date. Watch the presentation here.
The Transportation Interim Committee considered legislation that would, among other things, limit the number of standard license plate designs to four. By limiting the number of standard license plates, law enforcement officers on roads across the country can more easily identify legitimate Utah plates. The bill would also allow counties to require an emission inspection of a vintage vehicle if the vintage vehicle is driven more than 1,500 miles a year. Right now, cars with vintage license plates are exempt from emissions tests. The committee provided feedback on the drafted legislation and will consider it again at a later date. Watch the presentation here.
The Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee heard a presentation on draft legislation aimed to expand the number of childcare options across the state. This bill would require the Office of Child Care to use COVID-19 relief funds to provide grants to small businesses and school districts. With the grants, businesses and school districts can contract with providers to offer childcare service for employees. Listen to the presentation here.
Medical Cannabis Patient Protection Amendments
In 2018, the Legislature passed bills intended to protect public employees who use medical cannabis. Specifically, the law states a government employer cannot take adverse action against one of their employees for their lawful medical cannabis use or possession unless there are signs of impairment and the employee fails a urine test. Despite these laws, some patients have been subject to adverse employment action, not for medical cannabis use or possession, but for possessing a medical cannabis card.
During the Government Operations Interim Committee last week, members heard a presentation on draft legislation that protects a government employee based on their medical cannabis cardholder status or their medical cannabis recommendation from their qualified medical provider. The bill tries to close the gap in cannabis policy by requiring employers to treat medical cannabis cardholders the same as they would any employee lawfully prescribed a controlled substance. Listen to the presentation here.
988 Crisis Response System
During the Government Operations Interim Committee meeting, the committee heard a presentation about the state’s plan for the new 988 Crisis Response System going into effect nationwide in July 2022. The Utah Behavioral Health Crisis Response Commission reported on their studies of 12 areas of state compliance with national crisis response standards, including research on the interoperability between 911 and 988.
Utah Behavioral Health Crisis Response Commission found Utah’s current behavioral health Crisis Line has increased in demand by 51% from the beginning of the pandemic through October 2021. Over 92,000 total crisis calls were received in the 2021 fiscal year, including 1,353 life-saving interventions for callers at imminent risk of suicide. Along with increased demand, the length of time to resolve crisis calls increased by 64% from March 2020 to October 2021. In 86% of calls, concerns were resolved over the phone, 4% of calls were referred to an emergency department or hospital and in 2% of calls, law enforcement was involved. Listen to the presentation here.
It was noted in this month’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee that although Utah no longer has an emergency drought order in place, 100% of the state is still in drought conditions and 79% of the state is in “extreme” drought conditions or worse. However, the Department of Natural Resources reported our state has made some progress. Rain and snow this fall has benefitted soil and moisture conditions, which means precipitation this winter will mostly fill reservoirs and lakes rather than soaking into parched soil. Despite this good news, stream flows have not increased as expected and are below normal levels in 48 of 97 reported streams. Reservoir levels are also very low, with the Great Salt Lake at a historic low and 37 of Utah’s 45 larger reservoirs below 55% capacity. Listen to the report here.
Bridal Veil Falls
During the 2021 General Session, H.C.R. 13 Concurrent Resolution Regarding the Bridal Veil Falls Area called for the Division of Parks and Recreation to study the feasibility of designating the Bridal Veil Falls area as a state park or state monument. The Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee heard a report from Utah State Parks on that study. The study found that local governmental and public advocacy groups expressed a high level of enthusiasm and support for the concept. In the public engagement part of the study, surveyors contacted close to 5,000 individuals about the plan. It was found that most individuals would like to see improvements to trails, safety measures and restroom facilities. The highest level of public support was for state management as a recreation or scenic area. Learn more here.
Water Safety in Schools and Childcare Facilities
According to a 2017 sample study presented to the Legislative Water Development Commission, 92% of schools and childcare centers tested around Utah have detectable amounts of lead in the water. Lead can be dangerous and harmful, especially for the young students who use those water systems. Lawmakers are drafting legislation to establish baseline testing in all schools and childcare centers by the close of 2023. The purpose is to create a safer and healthier environment for children by resolving any identified problems and notifying the public. Listen to the presentation here.
Transgender Participation in Sports
The Health and Human Services Interim Committee discussed draft legislation on transgender participation in high school sports. The draft legislation mimics NCAA policies. The goal of the bill is to create an environment with healthy athletic competition without putting an athlete in physical danger or giving any athlete an unfair advantage.
Under this draft legislation, students transitioning from female to male without medication would join female sports teams, while those who undergo hormonal therapy may play on male sports teams. Males who transition to females without medication, and during the first year of hormonal therapy, will play on male teams. After the first year of hormonal therapy, these athletes may play on female teams. This draft legislation also requires all transitioning high school athletes to alter their birth certificates to accurately reflect their gender. The committee voted to favorably recommend the draft legislation. Listen to the presentation here.
The Youth Suicide Report was presented during the Health and Human Services Interim Committee and gave several insights into the difficult and tragic topic of suicide.
The report found that firearms are involved in almost 50% of yearly youth suicides. Parents and guardians are encouraged to lock up and hide firearms or leave firearms with a trusted family member or friend. It was also found that almost all young suicide victims requested help on social media in the year before their passing.
Some of the most common struggles for suicide victims include mental health, breakups, feeling excluded, being bullied or cyberbullied. Many times, people with suicidal thoughts may not know how to express their pain. Creating a safe space, having open communication and offering help is something we should all do. Reaching out to youth who are struggling could save a life. Listen to the presentation here.
Catalytic Converter Theft
A catalytic converter is a device that converts toxic gases and other pollutants from exhaust emission into a less harmful form. Recently, there has been an increase in the theft of catalytic converters. Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee discussed proposed legislation to help address this issue.
Thefts financially impact businesses and individuals because of the cost to replace the part when stolen. There is also an environmental impact because it increases toxins from exhausts when the part is removed from the vehicle.
The proposed legislation aims to improve data gathering methods, increase security for purchases of a catalytic converter and update the legal process.
Ranked Choice Voting
During the Political Subdivisions Interim Committee, legislators heard from several county clerks and city recorders about recent municipal elections held using Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). This election cycle marked the largest use of RCV in Utah’s history, with 21 cities and towns across the state making use of RCV.
Overall, the implementation of RCV appeared to elicit positive feedback from voters. According to survey data presented during the committee by Utah Ranked Choice Voting Group, 81% of survey respondents felt voting with RCV was either a very or somewhat easy process, with only 19% indicating it was either somewhat or very difficult. As discussed in committee, a major positive impact of RCV is the reduction in election cost. Because primary elections are unnecessary with RCV, many cities and towns reported significant cost savings. For example, Salt Lake City reported saving $47,000 by not conducting primary elections and instead using RCV. Cache County reported RCV could provide up to a 50% cost reduction for their cities and towns.
Despite the positive feedback, cities and counties encountered several issues with RCV. Nearly all clerks and recorders who testified indicated they had to undertake extensive education campaigns to help voters understand how the RCV process works. Even with these efforts, many reported the volume of calls and questions to their offices about ballots was notably higher this year. Additionally, election officials noted issues with over voting (voters accidentally ranking two candidates in the same position) and under voting (voters not ranking some candidates). Per current election law, if a voter skips a ranking on their ballot, the remainder of their rankings cannot be tabulated. A suggestion for potential cleanup legislation was made to alter this requirement.
Most Utahns who testified indicated they felt RCV was a success, and believed it presented a beneficial opportunity to discuss alternative voting methods and create more effective and efficient elections. Listen to the presentation here.
I Look Forward to Hearing From You!
I'll try 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 be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You’re also welcome to join me at the Capitol and if you’d like to meet with me in person outside of interim or the legislative session, you can reach Jason Gould at email@example.com. He’ll help us get in touch.
I’m truly 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.
Until next time,
Senator Dan McCay
Utah Senate District 11