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How the Utah Legislature continues to usurp power from city and county government

March 10, 2022 by admin
Policy/Legislative

How the Utah Legislature continues to usurp power from city and county government

From COVID-19 restrictions to guns to building decisions, the Legislature continued to take power from local governments and school boards.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Several hundred educators, parents and other public school advocates rally on the steps of the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. Advocates feel many anti-public school measures have been made by the Legislature this year.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Several hundred educators, parents and other public school advocates rally on the steps of the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. Advocates feel many anti-public school measures have been made by the Legislature this year.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams gaveled in the 2022 Legislature amid the crush of COVID-19.

The state was shattering its record for new cases and more Utahns were in hospital and intensive care beds than at any other point in the pandemic. Adams himself had tested positive twice the day he called the body to order — although he told the body he had tested negative.

The first order of business — literally, the first measure to pass the Legislature — was to rescind mask mandates anywhere in Utah.

A year earlier, the Legislature had given county health departments the authority to issue mask mandates with the approval of the county government. The Salt Lake County Council rejected a proposed mask mandate in August, but with the omicron variant overwhelming hospitals this winter, two Republican council members went along with the requirement.

After House leaders tried and failed to pressure the council members to change their votes, the Legislature immediately overturned mask requirements in Salt Lake and Summit counties.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said he sponsored the measure after hearing from business owners who were shut down by the Salt Lake County Health Department, while competitors 30 minutes to the south in Utah County were free to operate as normal.

“Maybe one county’s caution is a greater detriment to some than others,” he told me, “and it’s why the countywide decisions weren’t the best, either.”

It was also, McCay said, part of the process the Legislature had set up a year earlier to control the issuance of mask requirements.

He’s not wrong. During the yearslong pandemic, the Legislature passed numerous bills restricting the authority of the governor and county health departments to require masks, close schools or restrict businesses during the pandemic.

It is also part of a larger trend, one that has unfolded over decades, where the Legislature has asserted more and more dominance over policymaking in the state.

The 2022 general session proved to be no exception, with lawmakers whittling away at the power held by the governor, state agencies and local school boards. But, it seems, they’ve especially gone after city and county government authorities.

One of the most popular tactics of legislators is to insert themselves into local issues through the creation of “authorities” that take over land-use decisions, tax revenue and bonding power from local governments to achieve some vision of the Legislature. Usually, the boards of these authorities are stacked with legislators.

The Military Installation Development Authority, for example, was created in 2007, initially to boost manufacturing infrastructure near Hill Air Force Base and later to develop a luxury resort hotel and ski resort near Jordanelle Reservoir. It is chaired by Adams and Sen. Jerry Stevenson, both Layton Republicans.

During this session, lawmakers created a new Utah Lake Authority to manage restoration efforts. Critics of the new authority see it as a way to facilitate a human-made island real estate project, which the bill’s sponsor denies.

Lawmakers slashed the number of voting members on the Inland Port Authority board, getting rid of seats for Magna, West Valley and Salt Lake City and two for Salt Lake County and adding another appointment by the House speaker and Senate president — meaning three of the five slots are controlled by the Legislature.

 

Similarly, there’s the Point of the Mountain Land Authority, also predominantly made up of legislators.

These kind of land-use authorities are somewhat unique, said Brigham Young University political science professor Adam Brown. At the federal level, Congress will delegate regulatory duties to the executive branch and take a more hands-off approach.

“Now we’ve got all these authorities” at the state level, he said, “and the really weird difference is they’re putting themselves on them.”

The expansion of the land authorities is just one way cities and counties are losing their power.

For example, SB115 by Sen. Chris Wilson prohibits Salt Lake County — or any city or county — from requiring background checks at gun shows held at county facilities, which Salt Lake County began doing in 2019.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee passed legislation limiting a city’s ability to license food trucks, which was amended late in the session to restrict when local governments can impose noise ordinances on all-terrain vehicles.

The Senate president described the evolving power dynamic between the Legislature and local governments as “eternal and ongoing.”

“The interaction between the two goes on because they actually receive their authority from the Legislature,” Adams said, noting the cities are subdivisions of the state. “So we will probably continue to regulate the processes cities go through as long as they exist.”

Rep. Steve Waldrip’s affordable housing bill passed in the closing days after being altered to direct local governments to approve certain developments around transit corridors. Another by Rep. Joel Ferry would prohibit cities from regulating “animal enterprises” — anything from ranching to puppy breeders or zoos — did not.

Speaking of zoos, schools and school districts have been besieged in the past year by parents outraged by library books and teaching on race. A flurry of bills were proposed to regulate those topics. The most onerous piece of legislation — Sen. Jon Johnson’s bill punishing teachers if students are taught “divisive topics” — failed.

But a few made it through, like Sen. Lincoln Fillmore’s bill requiring districts to establish a process where parents can provide input on curriculum and materials.

And, as part of the Legislature’s clampdown on COVID-19 restrictions, instead of requiring schools to test students if they have significant outbreaks, school districts will now need explicit signoff from the House speaker and Senate president if they wish to go to remote learning — a unique legislative veto that some attorneys say is unconstitutional.

There are other bills, of course, that pull additional power and decision-making to the Legislature. Many of these and others do have one final hurdle to clear — Gov. Spencer Cox’s signature or veto.

Cox has been stingy with his vetoes in his one year in office, rejecting just four of the 499 bills that have crossed his desk.

So barring a significant change in Cox’s approach, logic would dictate that more and more decisions traditionally made by the governor, local governments and school boards will continue to be pulled into the Legislature’s vortex of power.

Correction: March 7, 11:05 a.m. • The story has been changed to update the status of several bills and to remove a reference to a bill by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore that did not pass.

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