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Utah special session covers state of emergency, masks: Legislators cover hot topic issues of race, Second Amendment

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The Utah State Legislature held a special session last week to discuss a variety of issues, including the appropriation of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, a national COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus package. Many of the items discussed in the session were amendments to clarify or streamline previously passed legislation.

The body also discussed ongoing drought conditions and face coverings in schools. Both the Utah House and Senate also called their own extraordinary sessions to discuss two topical cultural ideas: critical race theory in public education and the idea of Utah becoming a “sanctuary state” for the right to keep and bear arms.

Drought emergency

Senator David Hinkins (R-District 27), who represents Grand County, co-sponsored a joint resolution to extend the state of emergency due to drought conditions which passed both the House and Senate.

In March, Utah Governor Spencer Cox issued an executive order declaring a statewide state of emergency due to drought and issued another such order on May 13. That order activated emergency operations and drought response plans.

Under Senate Bill 195, which was passed during this year’s general session, the legislature can limit executive powers in an emergency situation if that emergency lasts longer than 30 days. That bill was prompted by concerns among legislators that executive powers over health orders related to COVID-19 lacked checks and balances.

The recently passed joint resolution regarding drought conditions acknowledges that circumstances warrant a state of emergency and extends the expiration date out to Oct. 31. It also limits certain emergency executive powers, such as recommending evacuation or suspending the enforcement of a statute.

Both of the representatives who serve the Moab area, Rep. Carl Albrecht (R -District 70) and Christine Watkins (R-District 69) voted in favor of the resolution.

Masks

An item of much debate was House Bill 1007, which prohibits both public and higher education systems from requiring face coverings. Advocates for the bill called it a “return to normalcy” and a safeguard of mental and social well-being of students. Opponents worried that the bill denies local control to school districts, local governments, and health departments, and that it’s too early to remove COVID-19 mitigations.

Those in favor of the bill pointed out that it leaves a mechanism for schools to request a mask order through their local health department and county executive.

“Absent an actual outbreak, we can’t ask students to wear masks, and the whole point of a mask is to prevent an outbreak,” Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost (D-District 24), noted in response to this point.

Dailey-Provost voted against the bill; Hinkins, Watkins and Albrecht all voted in favor. The bill passed 50-24, with one absent, in the House, and 23-5, with one absent, in the Senate.

Both the House and Senate also passed a joint resolution approving the acceptance of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, with Hinkins, Watkins and Albrecht all voting in favor.

Extraordinary sessions

Cox declined to include two items on the special session agenda: a discussion of critical race theory in public education and another of making Utah a “Second Amendment sanctuary.” Each legislative body instead discussed these items in extraordinary sessions, passing symbolic resolutions which have no force of law.

The discussion of race in public education systems has sparked tense controversy.

“We would all be better off if people would stop watching cable news, whether it’s CNN or Fox News or MSNBC,” Cox said during his monthly news conference on PBS Utah, pointing out that “no one really knows” what critical race theory is, making writing legislation governing the pedagogy difficult.

Critical race theory refers to an academic understanding that examines social, cultural, and legal issues as they relate to race and racism, but activists including Natalie Cline, a member of the Utah State Board of Education, have used the term to accuse schools of teaching students anti-White or anti-American material.

Mark Huntsman, the president of the Utah State Board of Education, has called the accusations a “false narrative” and said no such coursework was being taught in the state.

House Democrats left the floor on May 19 in protest of the proposed resolution.

“What this is about is an attempt or first step in assuring that my history and the history of many people of color are not taught in our school system in the state of Utah,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, the only Black member of the legislature, as reported by the Associated Press.

The resolution recommended that the State Board of Education prohibit specific concepts from curriculums: that one race is inherently superior, that an individual should experience discrimination due to race, or that a person’s moral character is determined by the person’s race.

The resolution passed 56-0 with 19 absent; Reps. Albrecht and Watkins voted in favor. The Senate passed a similar resolution 21-6, with two absent. Hinkins voted in favor.

The Utah State House also passed a resolution declaring support for the right to bear arms and encouraging greater protections for the exercise of that right. The Utah legislature joins cities, towns and other municipalities across the nation which have passed symbolic “Second Amendment Sanctuary” laws, resolving to oppose gun control measures.

That resolution passed 56-0 with 19 absent; Reps. Albrecht and Watkins both voted in favor. The Utah State Senate passed a similar resolution which passed 22-6 with one absent. Hinkins voted in favor. Both issues are expected to return in the 2022 session.