Legislative Wrap-Up: Highlights from the 2018 Session

Gov. Gary Herbert has called this year’s legislative session one of the best he’s seen in over 10 years, as big compromises and complicated solutions were made in areas like education and transportation. One such compromise was with the popular ballot initiative, Our Schools Now. Two other ballot initiatives, medical cannabis and Count My Vote, were also up for debate, but no compromises were reached. Those issues are now headed to the November ballot for voters to weigh in.

Of course the 45 days couldn’t end without some controversial topics making headlines, such as legislation to abolish the death penalty, a proposal to rename a highway the Donald J. Trump Utah National Parks Highway, and a proposal that would have issued restraining orders to temporarily remove guns from people shown to be a threat. All in all, it was a busy 45-day whirlwind of an event. Here’s a look at some of the major bills to come out of the 2018 Utah Legislative Session.

Education is always a hot-button issue, and it’s easy to see why. From having the country’s lowest per-pupil funding rate to dire teacher retention stats to crowded classrooms, Utah’s K-12 education system is always front and center during the Legislature. This year was particularly profound, as the Our Schools Now initiative demanded change, if not through legislation, then through the 2018 ballot. The initiative was on track to ask voters to approve a ½ of 1 percent increase to the state sales tax and personal income tax, which would boost education spending by an estimated $700 million. But legislators were eager to work with Our Schools Now to develop a compromise, which they did—albeit a complicated one—in the final hours of the session.

The compromise includes several changes to the state’s tax system, which, according to Our Schools Now, were the root cause of the current education funding imbalance. HB 491 will put a new nonbinding question on the 2018 ballot, asking voters to add a dime to the state’s gas tax. If approved, the 10-cent bump would add up to approximately $170 million in new revenue for the state’s transportation fund. Thirty percent of those funds would be put toward local roads and the remaining 70 percent would be used to offset an equivalent cut in transportation funding, which would then go toward education. The compromise also includes HB 293, which freezes property tax rates for five years. All generated revenue will go directly to schools. The compromise also helps equalize school funding to aid school districts with lower property values. If all goes to plan, Utah’s schools could see an estimated boost of $845 per pupil by 2023.

Workforce development
As Utah’s economy continues to grow, employers in industries ranging from manufacturing to high-tech are in dire need of skilled workers. To lure more students into high-demand fields, Sen. Ann Millner sponsored SB 104, a loan repayment plan. Students who pursue high-demand fields and then stay in the state after graduation will have access to money to repay their student loans. The bill appropriates $2.5 million for the program. Millner also sponsored SB 131, which creates the Talent Ready Utah Center within the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. The center will unite industry and education partners to create work readiness programs, as well as provide outreach programs to employers. To help promote the state’s booming tech industry and attract tech-skilled workers to the state, SB 146 will provide post-performance incentives of up to $1 million for the annual Silicon Slopes Tech Summit.

As Utah’s population continues to grow at a record pace, transportation infrastructure plays a key role in ensuring smooth economic development. In this year’s session, legislators passed a giant transportation bill that shifts funds and changes transportation oversight to allow for greater long-term planning. SB 136 aims to unite economic development, transportation and infrastructure investment leaders to ensure thoughtful, long-term planning that includes all transportation modals. The bill emphasizes multi-modal transportation and requires the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) to develop project prioritization criteria that considers land use and economic development. SB 136 also significantly reforms the Utah Transit Authority, changing its 16-member board to just three members. The move paves the way for greater state oversight, according to legislators. The bill also includes provisions to allow local jurisdictions to share property tax revenue for transportation projects, as well as permits cities and counties to create an optional local sales tax to fund projects. The bill also raises registration fees on electric and hybrid vehicles. The fees will go into a UDOT account for electric vehicle charging structures.

Inland port
Though highly contested, the governor signed SB 243 into law, creating the Utah Inland Port Authority. The authority will oversee the development of approximately 20,000 acres of Salt Lake City land. The move comes at the dismay of Salt Lake City, with Mayor Jackie Biskupski arguing in a statement that the bill, “eliminated the city’s land use authority, compromised environmental protections, and took all tax increment.” Proponents of the bill argue that the 20,000 acres of unused Salt Lake City land is the ideal spot for an inland port due to its proximity to several major intersections, the Salt Lake International Airport and Union Pacific’s major freight terminal.

Legislators passed a highly debated Medicaid expansion bill, which would expand coverage to an additional 65,000 to 70,000 Utahns. HB 472 permits the State Health Department to seek a federal waiver expanding Medicaid benefits to Utahns with a household income less than the federal poverty level. A controversial component of the bill requires that some recipients meet a work requirement. If it becomes law, the Medicaid expansion would be funded 10 percent by the state and 90 percent by the federal government. While many hail the bill as a grand compromise, others are skeptical about whether the federal government will approve the plan. Without federal approval, the expansion plan is dead.

Medical cannabis
In an effort to get one step ahead of an initiative to get medical cannabis on the November ballot, legislators debated two bills on the controversial topic. HB 195, the right-to-try bill, legalizes the use of medical cannabis for terminally ill patients. The bill passed but was scrutinized by many for not going far enough. Its companion bill, HB 197, did not pass. HB 197 would have permitted the Department of Agriculture to contract with a third party to oversee cannabis growing and processing. The bill would have also designated a state dispensary to sell cannabis products. Without HB 197, physicians will have no legal access medical cannabis and, therefore, won’t be able to prescribe it to terminally ill patients, which makes HB 195 impractical.

With no real change made during the session, Utah Patients Coalition plans to put its proposed Utah Medical Cannabis Act on the ballot. If voters agree with their solution, physicians would be granted approval to prescribe cannabis for specific medical conditions.

Count My Vote
Another highly contested ballot issue—Count My Vote—was raised during this year’s session. Signed into law in 2014, SB 54 created a dual-path for candidates to get on the ballot, either through caucus/conventions or by signature gathering. Since becoming law nearly five years ago, SB 54 has been contested in and out of the courtroom. In this year’s session, house legislators voted to repeal SB 54, which would leave candidates with only one option to get on the ballot—through the state’s longstanding caucus/convention system. The bill to repeal SB 54 was not passed by the state senate, however, so voters will have an opportunity to weigh in on this sticky issue in November.

Several clean energy bills were up for debate this session, but only a handful made it into law. State lawmakers began by passing a resolution that officially recognizes climate change as impacting Utah’s economy and national security, as well as encourages efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. SB 141, the residential solar tax credit, was granted an extension until 2020. Residents with solar rooftop panels will be able to receive the $1,600 tax credit until it is phased out by 2024. SB 166 amended energy efficient building codes to enhance energy efficiency oversight and transparency. HB 101 requires emissions testing for diesel vehicles, removing the ability for counties to exempt vehicles from emissions inspections.

Auto sales
After battling with the Legislature and in the courtroom for several years, Tesla will now be able to sell its cars directly to consumers. The longstanding Franchise Act prohibits manufacturers from direct sales, forcing them to work through franchise car dealerships. HB 369 creates a direct-sale manufacturer salesperson license, enabling a manufacturer, like Tesla, to act as a salesperson and bypass the auto franchise system.

Utah’s lawmakers granted themselves the power to call the Legislature into special session, a move that some say pits the governing body against the governor. Historically, only the governor has been able to call the Legislature into session. Legislators also granted themselves authority to intervene in court cases using their own legal counsel, bypassing the attorney general’s office.