Special legislative session saw allocations of ARPA funds and movement of bills

The Utah State Legislature held a special session last week to accept funds from the federal government and vote on meaningful bills not solidified during the previous session. One bill, House Bill 1007, which passed in both legislative bodies, prohibits schools from enforcing a mask mandate without authorization from local or state health authorities.

 

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The House and Senate both passed S.J.R 101, which officially approves the acceptance of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) federal funds, and passed SB 1001 as a companion bill that appropriates some funds for specific purposes. 

Senate Bill 1001 allocates a total of $571 million and leaves the rest of the $1.7 billion ARPA funds slated for Utah to be allocated in the next session. Of the $571 million, $165 million were used for social services which includes mental health services and vaccine distribution.

Established allocations, called “buckets,” were used as guiding principles for federal stimulus to ensure funds spent are permissible within federal guidelines and beneficial to the people of Utah.

Senator Luz Escamilla, minority whip and member of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, says health care is a crucial bucket being filled by these ARPA funds. 

“One of the biggest [buckets] is health care and what we continue to do to battle and combat this pandemic. You will see a lot of money continuing the effort of vaccinations.”

According to Escamilla, additional funding went toward mental health access, the housing crisis, and community health infrastructure. Community health workers need aid to assist in staffing retention and expanding their teams to bring quality care to their communities, says Escamilla. 

“How do we utilize people within the community and connect with those communities? Communities are different depending on where you are in terms of racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. Community health workers are really that cultural broker between public health needs, educational needs and the community.” 

According to Escamilla, data shows the support given to the community health workforce thus far has led to a rapid decrease of COVID cases throughout Utah. Escamilla says this was a needed intervention and she will continue to work to provide them the best resources to practice to the full extent of their license and circumstance. 

Within the special session, both legislative bodies passed HB 1007 on face covering requirements. This bill will prohibit a school district or institution of higher education from requiring students to wear a face covering to participate in classroom learning, activities or any other place on campus. 

Bill sponsors claim this bill is about the mental health of students to assure they can go back to school in the fall under normal, pre-COVID circumstances. They also say the COVID response will remain under local control and schools can take action with help from local officials in an outbreak.

Escamilla thinks the bill is unnecessary and is sending the wrong message about the approach the Legislature should take in responding to the pandemic.

“At the end of the day, the only population that is not vaccinated and has no access to vaccines are our kids. Why go after a population that is vulnerable? I know their COVID cases are very low, but the risk is still there.”

The bill awaits signature from Governor Spencer Cox.