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The Utah State Capitol Building reflects sunlight. Recent legislative decisions targeting education and public health reflect a pattern of disagreement between state and local government. (Decker Westenburg)

Recent decisions by the Utah legislature targeting education and public health reflect a pattern of disagreement between state and local government.

The Utah legislature ended mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties from Jan. 21 to SJR3, despite conflicting views from local leaders. Earlier this month, Governor Spencer Cox signed into law HB183 which suspended the “test to stay” requirement in public schools and said instead that local leaders make the final decision on whether a school district becomes remote.

Cities and local governments are “creatures” of the state and have the legislature’s permission to make decisions, said University of Utah political science professor Dave Buhler.

“But if the legislature doesn’t like the way it wields its power, it can step in and change the rules,” Buhler said.

Buhler has seen many examples throughout his political career of conflicting decisions between the local and state level. As a state senator, he introduced bills to override city council decisions he disliked. But a few years later, as a member of the Salt Lake City Council, he had a different view and thought: “The Legislature leaves us alone, we get it.

He shared an old saying in politics: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Angela Dunn, MD, is executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department. Dunn acknowledged lawmakers had the power to overturn the county’s mask mandate in a Jan. 20 interview with KSL NewsRadio.

“I think it’s unfortunate given their priority of keeping control at the local level for the COVID response,” she said.

According to Buhler, it is not an excess of state power for the legislature to terminate local public health orders because it has the power to do so.

“It’s not that unusual, but I feel like the legislature over time has become more and more assertive, both about local governments and in its dealings with the state executive. “, did he declare.

Local control “railing”

HB183 sponsor rep Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, said local control is extremely important to him, but as a state legislator, it’s part of his job to put up “guardrails.” around him. SB107, signed into law in March 2021, had already had heads of state approve a district’s request to go remotely. The new law gives additional procedures for districts to follow and requires approval from the Governor, Speaker of the Senate, Speaker of the House, and State Superintendent before logging on.

Teuscher said school districts did not have enough COVID-19 tests to implement testing to stay through the omicron spike when required by law. Heads of state decided to suspend the test to remain in response to these concerns. If the districts want to test to stay, they can, but there is no longer an obligation.

“So in some ways it made local control over the test to stay and then just set the parameters to how someone would request remote days,” he said.

But state involvement in local issues like education and public health is a concern for some.

“I think it’s more political than anything else,” said Steven Sylvester, a political science professor at Utah Valley University.

Parents already have a democracy — school boards and city councils — where they can voice their objections, Sylvester said. “Why does the state need to get involved? »

According to Adam Brown, a BYU political science professor who studies state constitutional politics, there is no doubt that the legislature has the power to set broad policies at the local level. For example, states have independent authority while cities, counties, and school districts only have delegated state powers. States have their own constitutions, cities do not.

But HB183 raised constitutionality issues because it gave the Speaker of the House and the Speaker of the Senate vetoes over certain school district decisions, even though they don’t have the executive power to do so under the constitution of the state.

“The Utah Constitution gives the President and the Speaker of the Senate the power to organize the business of their respective chambers, but not to make binding decisions on their own authority,” Brown said. tweeted. “Changing that would presumably require an amendment to the Utah Constitution, not just a law.”

Attorneys Brent D. Wride and Paul C. Burke called on Governor Cox to veto HB183 in an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune and claimed he violated Utah’s separation of powers doctrine by assigning powers executives to legislative officers.

“The constitutional flaw in House Bill 183 is that it violates our state’s constitution by granting legislative officers the power to interpret and apply the law,” they wrote.

In response, Teuscher and prosecution sponsor Senator Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, wrote in another op-ed that Article III of the Utah Constitution requires the legislature to establish and maintain the education system. public: the system will be, and any exceptions that might apply.

National model

The United States and Utah flags flutter in the wind at the Utah State Capitol. Some of Utah’s political science professors view the legislature’s involvement in local issues as a broader pattern both in the state and nationwide. (Emma Gadesky)

Some of Utah’s political science professors view the legislature’s involvement in local issues as a broader pattern both in the state and nationwide.

“Whenever the federal government proposes an action that would force states to follow a particular course, you can expect Utah lawmakers to kick and shout and insist on the virtue of local control,” Brown said.

But in Utah, that faith in local control does not extend to restricting the legislature’s control over cities, counties and school districts, he said: ‘And maybe that is logically inconsistent.”

Josh McCrain, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, said state interference in local issues such as education has no basis in real conservatism. It’s counterintuitive to classic party beliefs like individual choice, freedom and small government, he said.

In 2018, Utahans voted to legalize medical marijuana in Proposition 2. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, state lawmakers replaced the voter-approved proposition with the Cannabis Act. Utah Medical. Democrats have argued that the legislature should not overrule voters who approved the ballot initiative the previous month.

Further overbreadth issues arose after former Governor Gary Herbert signed into law HB3005 in May 2020. The law required the governor to notify certain members of the legislature before declaring a state of emergency. Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, worried the legislature was overstepping the bounds and said it seemed unnecessary and excessive, The Daily Universe reported.

Beyond Utah, state governments have a history of getting involved in social issues at the local level. In North Carolina, McCrain said some cities were willing to have progressive gender bathroom policies, but the Republican state government disagreed.

Utah lawmakers in the House of Representatives and Senate are 78 percent Republican and 22 percent Democrat, but the Salt Lake area is more liberal. (Made with Adobe Illustrator by Emma Gadeski)

North Carolina passed House Bill 2 in 2016, which required people in public buildings to use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate, regardless of their gender identity. This led to boycotts and cost the state millions in lost tourist revenue.

“It had a massive economic backlash because a ton of industry left the state after that, which of course is something that can happen at any time,” McCrain said.

Utah’s legislature is 78% Republican in 2022, but Salt Lake is more liberal. In 2020, 53.6% of Salt Lake County voted for President Joe Biden in the presidential election, compared to 37.6% statewide.

McCrain said it’s important for Utah to control what happens in Salt Lake City because it’s the “economic powerhouse” of the state.

“We usually see this in contexts where it’s a conservative state government and a city, which are usually very liberal,” he said.

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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion