ST. GEORGE — Members of Southern Utah’s “Sunshine Caucus” reported on what they had done during the 2021 general legislative session during the Washington County Republican Women’s monthly luncheon Thursday.
Reps. Walt Brooks, Brad Last, Travis Seegmiller and Lowry Snow, as well as Sens. Evan Vickers and Don Ipson were present at the event. While each lawmaker represents a part of Washington County, Last also represents eastern Washington County and part of southeast Iron County. Similarly, Vickers, who is also the Republican Senate majority leader, represents parts of eastern Washington County, as well as Iron and Beaver counties.
A different session
Members of the Sunshine Caucus remarked how different the 2021 legislative session was from previous ones due to continuing COVID-19 worries and potential threats of violence that put the Utah Highway Patrol on high alert around the Capitol.
“We weren’t sure if we were going to be shut down because of COVID – we weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Vickers said, adding that a lot of business conducted by the Legislature was done virtually this year.
“Obviously, it was a different session. We had a lot more virtual (meetings),” he said. “We actually had more participation virtually this year than we’ve had in the past.”
Allowing the public to participate virtually over the internet enabled levels of participation that would have otherwise been physically impossible in some rooms in the Capitol where committee hearings were heard.
One of the session’s bigger pieces of legislation that passed this year related to limiting the power of the state and local health departments and how long and far-reaching emergency declarations from the governor can be. The House bill, designated HB 294, was known as the “COVID-19 Endgame bill” and was accompanied by a similar bill in the Senate, designated as SB 195.
Vickers was the primary sponsor of SB 195.
“We realized our 1953 law just wasn’t appropriate and needed some revamping,” Vickers said, adding it was the result of an eight-month process of negotiation between various groups.
Two other bills of note that were signed into law came from Brooks. One allows for the permitless concealed carry of firearms in the state starting in May, while the other reduces state taxes on Social Security.
“As you can imagine, it was quite an emotional topic,” Brooks said of his firearms bill.
Brooks’ bill reducing the state tax on Social Security was a part of a package of tax relief bills amounting to an estimated $100 million in state tax cuts.
Both Ipson and Last, who hold leadership positions in the Senate and House budget appropriation committees respectively, worked on the state’s 2021 budget.
Last said the budget and state overall were “in pretty good shape” coming out of 2020.
Highlights of the state’s $23 billion budget include $476 million in new education spending, part of which includes $1,000-$1,500 bonuses for teachers and school staffers. Over $1 billion in transportation infrastructure projects are also being funded.
Budget items related to Southern Utah that will see funding include an additional campus site for Dixie State University in the area of River Road and the Southern Parkway in St. George, as well as what has been dubbed the “Toquerville bypass.”
The bypass will connect off Exit 27 from Interstate 15 and run along the west side of Toquerville. The purpose of the new roadway is to run heavy traffic heading to and from Zion National Park out of the town and onto the bypass just outside of it.
“It will expedite travel into Zion National Park and take the trucks off Toquerville’s main street,” Ipson said. “That’s going to be a real big deal for them.”
Outside of the budget, Last was also involved in the bill that creates the Colorado River Authority of Utah.
“As you know, water is pretty important to us down here,” he said. “We’re trying to get the Lake Powell Pipeline done, but water from the Colorado River is important to much of Utah.”
Among the bills Snow ran this year, one provides adults 26 and older with only some college education a way to finish their degree. Snow said around 370,000 people in the state – many of whom are women – haven’t finished college. His bill allows people to apply for a grant to get online college credit and finish their education.
Of the bills Seegmiller ran, he mentioned HB 38, which requires the Utah Education and Telehealth Network to contract with digital resource providers for the resources needed to block obscene and pornographic material.
“It will block pornography from our public schools,” Seegmiller said. “That was a three-year effort to finally get that put through.”
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