“During a legislative session there might be more than 1,000 bills introduced, and they’re constantly changing as they get amended,” says Deborah Case with the League of Women Voters of Utah’s Legislative Action Corps, which tracks bills during the Utah Legislative Session. “It can be really overwhelming to follow all of these bills and different topics.”
It can feel overwhelming for Utah voters as well, who might not know where to find information on legislation that impacts them. That’s where groups like The League of Women Voters of Utah (LWVU) come in. The league provides voters with tools to track bills that concern the league’s primary issues. Issues such as ensuring voting rights and equal rights—especially with recent pushes for election reforms and limiting access to reproductive health care. From there, “We choose whether to support, oppose or watch each bill item in that tracker,” explains Case. “The league is not a reactionary group. We’re not partisan. These are our positions, and we have stuck with them for years.” For 103 years, to be exact.
LWVU also believes informed individuals can make a difference in local politics. “We let people know that a bill is being considered and encourage them to call up their legislators,” says Case. “As a local lawmaker, when your constituents call and tell you what they want, you listen.” After all, often the biggest threat to a functioning democracy is not, generally, one bill or another, it’s voter apathy. “There’s a lot of disillusionment. That is a major issue that we have to fight,” says Case, “But people’s votes and voices matter. If they take the time to get active, it goes much further than they think. We have changed things, even at the 11th hour.” Case recalls a controversial 2022 school voucher bill that looked sure to pass before their Legislative Action Corps got the word out and helped change the vote. “Those are the moments that make us proud and keep us going.”
In the spirit of being informed and getting active (but not getting overwhelmed), here are some of the issues Utahns could see come up in the 2023 Utah General Legislative Session.
Issues in the 2023 Legislative Session That Aren’t Going Away
Utah is short on two very important things—affordable housing and water. Researchers with the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute presented data to lawmakers that shows 76% of Utahns have been priced out of the housing market, unable to afford a median-priced home. The research also concluded that the affordability crisis is worsening. This raises quite a few red flags and could mean the legislature decides to invest more money in affordable housing projects this session.
As far as water is concerned, Governor Spencer Cox issued a proclamation, putting in place a moratorium on any new water appropriations in the Bear, Jordan and Weber river basins in an effort to help get more water into the Great Salt Lake. The lake has reached record-low water levels and poses an existential threat to our way of life. The Legislature’s Water Development Commission supported that proclamation after seeing a presentation from Utah’s State Engineer on the precarious situation of Utah’s groundwater. As such, the Legislature will likely take on water resource management this session. There’s a proposed bill that would end the practice of paying for water projects with property taxes. That means Utah residents and industries would pay higher water rates in hopes they will use less of it. Currently, Utah has some of the nation’s lowest-cost water rates but some of the highest per capita water use. At the very least, expect some money appropriated for more groundwater studies.
Senate leadership has also named more tax cuts and increasing teacher salaries as two of their top legislative priorities. The tax cut might look similar to last year’s income tax cut from 4.95% to 4.85%. Education funding is always a hot-button issue, partially thanks to Utah’s comparatively low per-pupil spending. The Utah Education Association is asking the Legislature for a 6.5% increase (an estimated $292 million) on the Weighted Pupil Unit (how Utah measures education funding) as well as $24.5 million to expand optional full-day kindergarten, which was only partially funded the last session.
Addressing the Mental Health Crisis in Utah
Utah has one of the highest reporting rates of mental illness among adults in the country, and many Utahns with mental illness are not getting treatment, at least in part, because Utah has a shortage of mental health professionals. There are a few ways the Legislature could address Utah’s mental health crisis, if it chooses to do so, from the increasing availability of online resources to mental health licensing reform. They could also expand Medicaid mental health coverage, and one bill is already trying to do so. The bill extends the duration of postpartum coverage to address pregnancy-related deaths (the majority of which happen postpartum) and pregnancy-related deaths from overdose or suicide.
Mental health is not just an adult problem. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 15-24. Student wellness is a top legislative priority for groups like the Utah System of Higher Education, which is asking for $2,025,000 in funding for student mental health services. Governor Cox is making youth mental health issues a priority as well—particularly as it relates to social media—and says he is working with legislators on developing policy recommendations.
Some lawmakers are once again trying to restrict medical treatment of gender dysphoria in minors. One bill addresses hormone-based treatments, and, under another, minors could not receive any surgical treatments for gender dysphoria. However, those same procedures would still be available to minors who do not have gender dysphoria.
What’s Making a Return in the 2023 Session?
Bills that were dead on arrival during the last session could reappear. Both Utah’s air quality and lack of convenient mass transit could be addressed should a 2022 bill make a comeback. It proposes free fares for mass transit year-round. A resolution to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment tends to pop up every few years only to be summarily killed. On the other hand, ranked-choice voting (RCV) seemed popular in the 23 Utah cities that are part of a pilot program using RCV in municipal elections. A bill to expand the RCV program statewide never even got a hearing last session, but it could come back from the dead and have a longer life this session.