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Utah State Capitol

Legislative Wrap-up: Highlights from the 2016 Session

In some ways, this year’s legislative session was unusual. Never before have state legislators come so close legalizing medical marijuana, abolishing the death penalty or passing a ground-breaking hate crimes bill as they did during this year’s session. But when the 45-day whirlwind of an event came to an end at midnight on March 10, it was business as usual. Here’s a look at the major bills to come out of the 2016 Utah Legislature.

Non-compete agreements

HB 251 was one of this year’s most talked-about bills throughout Utah’s business community. Sponsored by Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, the passed bill creates post-employment restriction amendments that revise non-compete agreements between employers and employees. In short, the bill regulates the use of non-compete employment contracts, restricting both the employer and employee from entering into a non-compete agreement for more than one year. The bill also makes it so businesses who pursue non-compete agreements in the courtroom must pay all legal fees if they lose the case.

The proposal garnered attention from businesses across the state, with the Salt Lake Chamber and Domo CEO Josh James publically weighing in. In an op-ed published in The Salt Lake Tribune, James wrote, “Employees leaving may seem scary to employers, but the last thing we need is companies restricting the flow of talent and preventing competition. HB 251 would curtail—but should go further—the use of non-compete agreements, a move that studies consistently show fosters innovation and spurs economic growth.”

Workforce development

Studies show that Utah employers need nearly 40,000 technically skilled employees today, with a much higher demand forecasted in the near future. SB 103, which passed, is a strategic workforce investment plan that creates stackable, credential pathways (such as certificates), in an effort to create a more technically skilled workforce. According to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, who is former Weber State University president, SB 103, “will give our young people clear pathways to obtaining certificates and training that lead to jobs and to college completion pathways. It will provide for multiple entry and exit points for students who are just beginning their education or are returning to school to get more training. … economic growth will require a highly skilled workforce, so now is a critical time to launch an investment in workforce preparation and education.”

Education

Utah’s K-12 and higher education got a financial boost during this year’s session when state legislators allocated $440 million in new education spending—more than $18 million higher than what the governor proposed in his annual budget plan. The budget increases per-pupil spending by 3.75 percent. Legislators also allocated $15 million to go toward new technology in the classroom, but the amount is much smaller than the $100 million requested. Lawmakers also redirected $20 million to charter schools, as well as created a Partnership for Student Success grant program, which will provide educational services for low-income students provided by community partnerships.

Medicaid expansion

Medicaid expansion has been one of Utah’s most contentious issues in recent years. During last year’s legislative session, two bills failed to make it through the legislative session, and a third bill failed during a special session in October 2015. This year’s legislators took some steps toward expanding Medicaid, passing HB 437. The bill appropriates $2.5 million into the Medicaid Expansion Fund to provide healthcare coverage to 16,000 Utahns, focusing on the chronically homeless, those in the criminal justice system, and those in need of behavioral health treatment. While supporters say HB 437 is a step in the right direction, others contend it does not accomplish nearly enough.

 Water infrastructure

With a population that is expected to double by 2050, planning for Utah’s anticipated water consumption is imperative. SB 80 aims to bolster Utah’s water planning strategy, according to sponsor Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton. Now on its way to be signed by the governor, SB 80 will transfer millions in transportation funding to create a water projects fund. The fund will support preconstruction costs of the Bear River Development Act, including the highly controversial Lake Powell Pipeline. While some applaud the law as forward-thinking, several groups, such as the Utah Rivers Council, contest that the bill is a “Trojan Horse” for the Lake Powell Pipeline.

Air quality

Lawmakers made some strides toward improving Utah’s air quality during this year’s session. SB 118 will create the Uintah Basin Air Quality Research Project, which will examine Uintah Basin air quality in an effort to find and implement solutions to clean up the area’s polluted air. Legislators also passed HB 250, which limits the sale and purchase of water heaters that do not qualify as ultra-low NOx emitters. NOx contributes to both fine-particle pollution in the winter and ozone formation in the summer. The move is anticipated to remove 2,700 tons of toxins from the air each year, the same effect as removing 300,000 vehicles from Utah roadways. Legislators also toughened rules on industrial polluters and created a new funding source for clean air programs.

Legislators did not pass HB 316, which would have mandated strong building code updates to improve overall energy efficiency. HB 372 also failed, which would have required refineries to annually report on the status of their conversion to Tier 3 fuels.

Public lands

As the public lands battle continues, legislators set aside $686,000 to be allocated toward the state’s controversial legal suit with the federal government, as well as appropriated $4.75 million to provide legal assistance to the state and local governments regarding issues of land use and ownership. The public lands saga has been growing since the Legislature passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act in 2012, demanding the federal government relinquish more than 30 million acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management land.

California coal port

Passed in the final hours of the legislative session, SB 246 includes a $53 million allocation to help build the Oakland Coal Export Terminal. According to Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, the bill’s sponsor, the project will create a pathway for Utah to export coal to the overseas market, which will help Utah’s struggling mining towns that have high unemployment rates. Environmental groups in Calif. and Utah decry the bill, saying it will only temporarily boost the declining coal industry, while furthering global warming. The bill is expected to be signed by Gov. Herbert.

A few more happenings worth noting

  • SB 166 modifies USTAR’s governing authority and reporting requirements.
  • HB 244 legalizes Power Purchase Agreement, a solar lease arrangement that will make solar more accessible to a wider range of customers.
  • SB 115 modifies Rocky Mountain Power governing policies.
  • HB 292 passed restrictions against payday lenders. Payday lenders must now check first-time borrower credit history, offer an interest-free loan prior to suing non-paying individuals, and report the number of lawsuits filed against borrowers.
  • HB 87 provides more electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
  • HB 288 allows distilleries to offer product tastings to patrons.