We are already two weeks into the 2021 General Legislative Session and we’ve passed a total of 19 bills with many more to come over the next five weeks. One comment I hear from constituents on occasion is that we pass too many laws during the session. While there may be some truth to that, it is worth clarifying that not every bill we pass creates a brand-new law. While some bills do create new laws or programs, many of the bills we pass each session make small fixes to existing law or seek to make government run more efficiently. On some occasions, the bills we pass repeal old law. Over the last few years, the Legislature has worked to remove burdensome regulations that do not improve the lives of Utahns or make us any safer. The legislature has also made a concerted effort to reduce task forces and commissions that no longer serve their original purposes.
Week 2 Highlights
This week we passed our base budget bills. These bills traditionally use the previous year’s ongoing appropriations as a starting point. This was the first year we included $95 million in new money for education growth and inflation in the base budgets, making it the first year we have included these items in our base budgets. In addition, we also included an increase in per-pupil spending to restore last year’s 6 percent WPU increase. Overall, our base budgets we passed this week they also include over half a billion dollars in new state spending for high priority items such as education, Medicaid and COVID-19 response.
As part of our base budget, we passed the following bills:
Mental Health Services
As a Legislature we have passed a number of major bills over the last few years to improve our mental health treatment services in our state. We even began the nationwide push for a mental health crisis hotline. This session, more is being done to put trained professionals in positions to help people in crisis. This week we passed S.B. 53 Behavioral Emergency Services Amendments, which makes additional mental health crisis training available for emergency services professionals. Agencies throughout Utah can create teams of appropriately trained professionals to respond specifically to mental health emergencies. These professionals will be licensed to triage people and get them the resources they need. We also passed S.B. 47 Mental Health Crisis, Intervention Council which creates a council of stakeholders from various agencies to design the statewide training offered to these emergency services professionals.
Additionally, S.B. 41 Mental Health Access Amendments, requires health benefit plans to cover telehealth services for mental health treatment if the plan also covers in-person treatment of the same mental health conditions. All three bills passed in the Senate and are now in the House for consideration.
The Price Controls During Emergencies Act was created in 2005, but not ever used until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. S.B. 86 Amendments to the Price Controls During Emergencies Act, makes necessary changes to the act to ensure consumers are not price gouged and protects Utahns from false claims during an emergency. S.B. 86 targets four changes to the act, including checkpoints before an investigation, transparency in changes to the cost of items, privacy protection for those accused until after adjudication and higher evidentiary standards. This bill passed in Senate Business and Labor committee and will be debated on the Senate floor in the coming week.
This week we considered a couple of bills pertaining to criminal penalties. The first bill was created at the recommendation of the Utah Sentencing Commission, from a situation in which a 14-year-old girl was charged under the adult justice system rather than the juvenile system which resulted in a 10-year sentence to the state prison and registration on the sex offender registry. S.B. 50 Juvenile Offender Penalty Amendments, ensures that the appropriate level of punishment is administered based on the age of the offender at the time of the crime. It will not change the punishment for sexual infractions, for youth or adults. This closes a loophole where previously the punishment was based on the time of reporting rather than the time of the crime.
The second bill S.B. 64 Domestic Violence Amendments, proposes to enhance domestic violence a third-degree felony if it is a third-time offense in a 10-year window.
Both of these bills passed in the Senate and will now be considered in the House.
Consumer Alcohol Purchasing
Last year, we passed a bill that would allow consumers more options when ordering alcohol through the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC). This included allowing participation in subscriptions like Wine of the Month. The bill required funding that was ultimately rescinded due to the pandemic. This year, we are revisiting the change through S.B. 59 Consumer Alcoholic Beverage Purchasing. This new bill addresses some deficiencies in the DABC’s special order program and create a Consumer Purchasing Division of the DABC to implement the changes. The Senate passed the bill with unanimous support and will now be considered by the House.