|Dear Friends and Neighbors,|
Thanks to all of you who have been diligent in following the health guidelines during this pandemic. To achieve the best outcomes in flattening the curve, we need everyone to do their part. We are seeing exciting progress, but we must continue to follow social distancing and sanitizing protocols. As of April 28, the Utah Department of Health has reported 102,439 tests administered, 4,343 positive cases, 370 hospitalizations and 45 deaths.
Utah’s unemployment insurance claims for the week of April 12–18 dropped 18 percent from the previous week to 19,751. However, this is still a significant increase in average weekly claims compared to 2019 reports. More than 7,000 individuals have filed for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program funded by the CARES Act. Many Utah employers have begun paying their employees again after receiving an SBA loan or are preparing to reopen their businesses. Answers to unemployment insurance questions frequently asked by employees returning to work can be found here. Answers to unemployment insurance questions frequently asked by employers can be found here.
This last week, we returned to complete business for the third special session, considering three bills we did not complete action on last week. In addition, the governor called for us to convene in a fourth special session following the conclusion of the third. The purpose of the third special session was to deal with urgent issues pertaining to COVID-19. However, the Utah Constitution only allows special sessions called by the Legislature to appropriate less than one percent of the previous year’s budget. Governor Herbert called the Legislature into the fourth special session to allow us to make greater changes to our budget appropriations and amend a few pieces of legislation we passed during the general legislative session. Here are the bills we passed this week during the two special sessions:
Third Special Session
H.B. 3005, Pandemic and Emergency Response Act
The pandemic has presented a steep learning curve for us all. As a state government, we have not had to deal with this level of crisis in many decades. We are learning that there is room for improvement in how we work together as state leaders during pandemics. H.B. 3005 creates increased collaboration between the different branches of state government during a pandemic. The Legislature worked directly with the governor to draft this bill. H.B. 3005 will help ensure greater cooperation and consultation between the governor and the Legislature by requiring the governor to provide notice 24 hours before issuing a state order — or before suspending statutes or rules during a pandemic emergency. This bill also allows the Legislature to terminate certain emergency actions made by the governor, including orders and suspended rules. H.B. 3005 preserves the governor’s authority to make immediate decisions without the 24-hour notice requirement when there is an imminent threat.
S.B. 3006, COVID-19 Financial Relief Funding
Last week we passed S.B. 3006, COVID-19 Financial Relief Funding. It establishes three programs to provide targeted financial assistance to individuals and businesses financially harmed by COVID-19. These programs will be operated entirely through federal funds provided through the CARES Act. This week we amended S.B. 3006 to include additional guidelines. For example, the definition of an agricultural operation is now more clearly defined, and provisions in the bill now include a zero-interest emergency loan program for agricultural operations within the Department of Agriculture and Food. S.B. 3006 was also amended to require participating businesses to prove they’ve sustained losses due to COVID-19. Term details and program qualifications are outlined in the bill.
S.B. 3006 provides financial relief funding through:
- Agricultural Grants –The bill allocates $20 million of federal funding to the Conservation Commission for grants helping with farms, ranches or animal feed for organizations that have been financially harmed by public health measures related to COVID-19. Grants are capped at $40,000 each and are halved if a recipient has already received funding under the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The program will fund a minimum of 500 grants.
- Residential Housing Assistance – The bill provides $20 million of federal funding to the Housing and Community Development Division to help state residents negatively impacted by COVID-19 to retain or obtain housing.
- Commercial Rental Assistance – Provides $40 million of federal funding for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to use in a newly created “Commercial Rental Assistance Program” to grant qualifying small businesses funding for up to one month’s rent. The program will fund a minimum of 4,000 grants.
S.B. 3007, COVID-19 Provisions
During these unprecedented times, businesses need confidence they can open and operate without fear that someone may bring a claim against them for negligence simply for allowing the public into their facilities. S.B. 3007 helps provide businesses immunity from claims due to COVID-19 exposure during business operations. The bill provides immunity for businesses, churches, schools, and other types of facilities and organizations from claims such as civil liability. It does not apply if there is willful misconduct, reckless infliction of harm or intentional infliction of harm.
Fourth Special Session
H.B. 4001, Pandemic Response Federal Funds Appropriations
As I mentioned previously, the primary purpose of the fourth special session was to allow us to appropriate additional federal funds made available through the CARES Act to state agencies. H.B. 4001 allocated the following funds:
- $147 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund for tracking, testing, protective equipment, treatment medication and residential and agricultural/business assistance.
- $2 billion in unemployment insurance benefits.
- $60 million in additional Medicaid funding through enhanced Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (FMAP).
- $200 million in federal disaster funds as part of the presidential disaster declaration for Utah.
- $22.3 million for capital, planning and operating assistance to support public transportation in rural areas.
- $4.3 million through election security grants.
- $5.5 million through criminal justice grants.
This bill also appropriates $6 million for securing potential treatments for COVID-19. This funding can be used for medications like hydroxychloroquine, but it is not limited to any specific drug. The funding is intended to enable state agencies to acquire potential treatments to help treat patients and lessen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our state.
You may notice that most federal education funds were not included in this bill. We will appropriate these funds at a later date after further study and consultation.
H.B. 4002, Rail Fuel Sales Tax Amendments
H.B. 356, Railroad Amendments passed in both the Senate and House during the general session, it was later vetoed by the governor. Rather than call the Legislature into a veto override session, bill sponsors worked with the governor’s office to make a few adjustments acceptable to all parties. This collaboration resulted in H.B. 4002.
During the earlier tax reform effort, it was determined all forms of transportation needed to have an associated fuel tax to help maintain transportation infrastructure. That need still exists. This bill repeals the state sales and use tax exemption for sales of fuel to a rail carrier for use in a locomotive engine and deposits the resulting revenue into the General Fund.
The rail fuel tax revenue will be used in the following ways:
- 10 percent will go into an account administered by UDOT with funds granted to local jurisdictions to improve rail safety, including improved crossings and signage.
- 10 percent of the revenue will go to environmental impact studies in local jurisdictions with rail infrastructure projects.
- 80 percent of revenues will go into a restricted account to be appropriated during the legislative process and will be earmarked specifically for improved rail crossings and other rail-oriented projects.
H.B. 4002 passed in both the Senate and House and will go to the governor for his consideration.
To listen to the bill presentation in the Senate, click here.
H.B. 4003, Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship Program
During the General Session, we passed H.B. 332, Special Needs Scholarship Amendments, to provide proven education options for students with unique needs. The governor vetoed this bill. We then had an opportunity to fine-tune and improve the principles behind this bill.
After considerate and thoughtful negotiation with the governor and countless stakeholders involved, we arrived at this solution. H.B. 332 will allow us to better serve Utah families with special needs students. It extends opportunities to attend private schools or receive alternative education, such as speech therapy and occupational therapy.
We have passionate, talented and high-qualified teachers. We also have great schools with high performances and the taxpayers of Utah play a strong role in this partnership. We owe every child and every family the best education that best suits the needs and values of the individual. Now, more than ever, we should strive to provide every student with the necessary tools to succeed. H.B. 332 helps better serve Utah’s special-needs students.
Here is some information about the changes and student eligibility requirements:
- Students may qualify if they have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or are eligible to receive certain services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
- The value of a scholarship is means-tested based on eligible student’s parent’s income as follows:
- value equal to 2.5 times the weighted pupil unit (WPU) for an IEP student whose family income is 185 percent or less of the federal poverty level (FPL).
- value equal to 2 times the WPU for an IEP student whose family income is between 185 percent and 555 percent of FPL.
- value equal to 1.5 times the WPU for an IEP student whose family income is 555 percent or more of the FPL.
- value equal to 1 time the WPU for a non-IEP student.
- value equal to 0.5 times the WPU for a non-IEP kindergarten student.
- A scholarship recipient may use the scholarship for tuition, fees, textbooks, curriculum and other materials for certain schools or alternative education options.
- Private donors to the scholarship program qualify for a nonrefundable tax credit equal to the value of the donation.