Legislature holds virtual special session to provide emergency pandemic funding
By Doug Lowe
In response to the new coronavirus pandemic, two Sanpete County lawmakers made history while “attending” a very unique legislative meeting last Thursday and Friday.
Rep. Derrin Owens and Sen. Ralph Okerlund took part in the first-ever special session called by legislative leaders rather than the governor, and they also “attended” the first-ever meeting of Utah’s legislature held online rather than in person.
Rep. Owens, who lives in Fountain Green and represents most of Sanpete County and the most eastern part of Juan County, reported that the history-making virtual meeting “began a little funky, then got better and went pretty well.”
What Owens called “funky” were the time lags, or delays, occurring when each person spoke. But, that problem got solved or at least improved as that very first meeting continued.
When asked about House Bill 3005, whether he was among the 56 representatives who voted for it, or one of the 18 who opposed it, Owens said he liked the bill and its requirement that the governor consult with legislative leaders at least 48 hours prior to issuing the kind of emergency declarations he announced for the new coronavirus pandemic with almost no advance notice to those in the legislature.
According to Owens, the leaders of both the house and senate will be working with the governor’s people to hammer out language that both sides of state government—the executive and legislative branch can agree on. “Otherwise the governor could veto the bill, and we’d have to override his veto,” Owens explained.
After the special session’s first two days, what pleased Owens most of all was how quickly a newly created task force, set up to consider plans to re-open the economy while also protecting public health, got together and started meeting. “Their first meeting took place just one day later—on Friday,” he said enthusiastically.
Sen. Okerlund, a Monroe resident who serves all of Sanpete County, spoke with enthusiasm about being able to stay at home and yet “attend” a legislative session. “It was great. I’d like to see more. And, I imagine we will,” he said.
Like other legislators who represent the state’s more rural districts, Okerlund thinks that travel takes up a lot of time he might be able to put to better use on behalf of his constituents. He estimates “about 70 percent of my time as a senator is spent simply traveling.”
Okerlund agrees with the idea behind HB 3005, and is optimistic that mutually acceptable language, calling on the governor to consult with legislative leaders before declaring any future public health emergency, will be agreed upon, and the bill will become law.
When asked about the controversy around HB 3009, Okerlund said he did not find the bill’s intent objectionable, because he viewed it as “an innocuous attempt” to ensure that such power had to be “exercised closer to home, in local health departments,” rather than further away—at the state government level. So, he is hopeful that some revisions in the bill can end up reassuring most of its critics.
Okerlund expects the special session to resume during the last two days of this week, Thursday, April 23 and Friday, April 24. In fact by law they could meet again for a total of 10 days. But he doubts that many meetings will be necessary.