At 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, 404 new laws passed by the Utah Legislature this year take effect.
They will allow the terminally ill to use medical marijuana and give the green light to expand Medicaid coverage to 72,000 more low-income Utahns if the federal government grants a waiver. They will reduce the days that fireworks are legal, restructure and rename the Utah Transit Authority and enable more toll roads.
They will raise taxes for schools, require women seeking an abortion to first finish new state “learning modules,” and allow women to obtain birth control from a pharmacist rather than require a doctor’s OK. They will expand programs aiming to reduce suicide, slightly change a tough liquor law, and give the Legislature more power (despite vetoes by Gov. Gary Herbert, which were overridden).
They even create a new official state dinosaur (the Utahraptor) and allow dissolving-bodies-by-chemicals “cold cremation” as an alternative to burial or by-fire cremation.
Several of the new laws may be short-lived. They were written essentially as watered-down alternatives to ballot initiatives — and voters could replace them this fall.
Among the possibly short-lived laws are HB195 and HB197, which will allow terminally ill people to use medical marijuana with a doctor’s prescription and create a process to grow and distribute the product. A competing medical marijuana ballot initiative would make the drug far more widely available to people who suffer pain.
“The ‘right to try before you die’ law is woefully inadequate,” said Connor Boyack, a supporter of the initiative and president of the Libertas Institute. He predicts it will easily “be overridden and made obsolete by the initiative in November.”
Boyack did praise the Legislature, however, for passing SB130 to legalize cannabidiol, or CBD oil, which also takes effect Tuesday. It has no psychoactive ingredients. “There was a misconception that it was already fully legal. We are grateful for legislation that will now allow people to purchase it.”
The Legislature passed HB472 to seek federal waivers to allow expanding Medicaid coverage to about 72,000 low-income Utahns at no cost by reshuffling some other programs.
Again, it was passed largely as an alternative to a ballot initiative that would double the number of people covered. It would be funded with a sales tax increase but would bring in more than $800 million in federal funds to pay for 90 percent of the cost.
Backers of the initiative see HB472 as inadequate.
“Without our initiative, we really believe tens of thousands of people will not get the health care coverage they need,” said RyLee Curtis, campaign manager for Utah Decides Healthcare.
HB293 stops for several years the practice of automatically lowering school property tax rates as property values rise. It is expected to generate $36 million extra in its first year, and up to $167 million a year later.
The conservative Americans for Prosperity-Utah, which generally opposes tax hikes, sent out mailers last week attacking legislators who voted for that bill. “With a surplus of nearly $700 million [this year], it’s absurd that Utah lawmakers would choose to raise taxes on their constituents,” said AFP-Utah state director Heather Williamson.
Another part of the compromise will put on the ballot this fall a 10-cent gasoline tax hike for voters to consider. It would allow diverting some sales taxes now going for transportation instead to schools.
After problems with fireworks-caused fires last year, lawmakers passed HB38 to reduce the number of days Utahns may legally light fireworks from 14 to eight. People would be able to use fireworks legally from July 2-5 and July 22-25 around Independence and Pioneer days.
The bill doesn’t change the hours fireworks can be discharged (from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on the days leading up to and following the holidays, and until midnight on July 4 and 24). But it gives cities power to ban fireworks in certain areas depending on fire hazards.
On Tuesday, SB136 renames the Utah Transit Authority as the Transit District of Utah — but don’t expect to see names changing quickly on buses, trains and signs.
The agency says the renaming would cost $50 million, but the new law permits changes over time as allowed by budgets as equipment and signs are replaced. It is part of many changes ordered to restructure the agency.
By Nov. 1, the law will replace the current part-time, 16-member UTA board with a three-member, full-time commission. Monday is the final day on the job for current UTA President and CEO Jerry Benson. The UTA board said the new law required firing him, although lawmakers say it allowed him to stay for months if he so chose.
By terminating Benson, that action ensures he would be paid a severance package required by his current contract worth nine months of his current pay and insurance benefits — amounting to perhaps $282,000.
Also departing Monday is UTA General Counsel Jayme Blakesley because the law requires the Utah attorney general’s office to begin representing UTA in legal matters now.
SB136 also allows counties to implement without voter approval the same sales tax increases that voters in Salt Lake and Utah counties rejected in 2015 in Proposition 1. Salt Lake County is considering raising the tax if most cities and townships there endorse it.
Another new law, SB71, paves the way for creating more toll roads throughout the state by allowing use of newer high-tech electronic tolling methods. That could include systems with cameras that read license plates, deduct toll amounts from online accounts set up by drivers, or send bills to car owners’ homes.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, sponsored the measure especially to enable tolling to reduce crowding in Little Cottonwood Canyon in his district, when anticipated construction adds a lane there in 2020 or so.
Separation of powers
Two new laws, SB171 and HB198, will give part-time legislators more power against the full-time governor. Gov. Herbert vetoed them, but lawmakers overrode his vetoes.
SB171 allows lawmakers to intervene in court to defend the laws they pass, not having to depend on the state attorney general’s office to do so. Herbert complains that it could create conflicting state positions on lawsuits against the state.
HB198 outlines procedures to force the attorney general to provide the Legislature written legal opinions when requested, as already required by law. But Herbert blocked one such opinion last year by saying it would violate his attorney-client privilege with the A.G.’s office.
SB118 will abandon the state’s current abortion-education materials — including a brochure and a lengthy 1980s-era video — in favor of a new “learning module,” which would be viewed on a digital tablet such as an iPad.
Medical professionals who don’t provide the program and certify a woman has viewed it before an abortion could face a class A misdemeanor charge.
Also, HB12 will provide low-income women with long-acting birth control, such as intrauterine devices. It is estimated to cost $800,000 per year to provide such services to about 600 women, if the state obtains an expected waiver to Medicaid rules.
Supporters said most abortions in the state are for unwanted pregnancies and argued the bill will help prevent them.
Under HB456, restaurants will no longer need to post signs that say: “This premise is licensed as a restaurant, not a bar.” Bars would still have to display a sign that “clearly states” they are bars and “no one under 21 years of age is allowed.”
Other changes made by the bill will allow the Salt Lake City International Airport to add four more bars. Also, Utah Jazz fans will — for the first time — be able to carry a beer from their VIP dinner into the arena.
HB41 ensures the state’s suicide crisis lines are staffed around the clock and never go to voicemail. It is also called “Hannah’s Law,” after Hannah Warburton — a Huntsville teenager who had been a student body officer with straight A’s — who committed suicide after calling a hotline that no one answered.
He proposed the bill, testified in its favor and argued in House and Senate hearings that the Utahraptor should be honored in part because it has been found only in Utah, has the state’s name, and is the largest of all raptors.
Also, HB121 allows “cold cremation” or “alkaline hydrolysis” as an alternative to by-fire cremation or burial. It uses chemicals to dissolve bodies. Supporters say it is more environmentally friendly than regular cremation with less pollution.