The month of August has been particularly busy for me. Some of my highlights include going to Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas. It was an eye-opening experience to witness how unique each legislature is in different states. Read more about important topics that were covered throughout the month and during the interim session. Enjoy!
Teacher of the Year Nominees
We are so fortunate to have so many wonderful teachers in Utah. Our teachers provide a vital service to the state, our communities and our families. I am grateful for the quality educators we have in our district and proud to share the following as nominees for the 2020 Utah Teacher of the Year:
- Carol Slaugh - Daggett School District
- Erin Brown - Uintah School District
- Amelia Garner - Duchesne School District
Thank you for all you do!
Utah expanded Medicaid coverage for adults below the poverty level who previously did not have access to affordable healthcare coverage. Enrollment is open to individuals making between 0-100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). Utahns between 100-138 percent of the FPL are eligible for coverage through the federal exchange.
Earlier this year, U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) first waiver request, the “bridge” plan, to pay 70 percent and Utah 30 percent, which SB 96, Medicaid Expansion Adjustments, funded through June 30, 2020.
Recently, the 90 percent federal and 10 percent state funding match rate waiver was not approved by the federal government. While this latest development was unfortunate, SB 96 anticipated and planned on scenarios like this latest setback to ensure the program moves forward.
UDOH is working on the “fallback” waiver request, as directed by SB 96, which intends to cover adults earning up to 138 percent FPL at the 90 percent federal, 10 percent state match rate. It also has proposals to implement additional flexibilities and cost controls, including cost-sharing tools. The process and phases outlined in SB 96 are required by statute to be followed. UDOH can’t proceed to phase four without the law being changed.
Utah Medicaid’s General Fund expenditures have increased from 12.7 percent in 1998 to 26.1 percent in 2017. The state is committed to ensuring that Medicaid expansion is carried out in a way that addresses the needs of the most vulnerable among us, while not putting an unsustainable burden on taxpayers.
For more information about the Utah Medicaid program, visit medicaid.utah.gov.
Utah passed medical cannabis last year moving forward with the desire of voters to legalize it in our state. Implementing medical cannabis is a learning process, and adjustments were likely going to be needed. Discussion with stakeholders, state agencies and counties have been ongoing. The goal of the changes is to make sure patients have access the medication within the timeframe established in the legislation passed last year. I’ll continue to keep you updated on this issue as more information becomes available.
Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force
The Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force wrapped up the listening tour. During the summer, they visited communities around the state to hear directly from Utahns in their hometowns to receive public input about our state’s tax structure. (insert Jason’s video here).
One of the main questions at the town halls was 'is sales tax rate growing?' While sales tax revenue is growing in Utah, it is not increasing at the same rate as income tax, property tax, the economy or consumption. This creates an imbalance in our state budget to fund critical government services.
Throughout the next phase, the study phase, the task force will verify the challenge, review possible options, solutions and analyze opportunities to address the structural imbalance our state budget is facing.
During the first study phase meeting at the Capitol in August, the task force reviewed a few options, including reinstating the full tax on unprepared food from 1.75 percent to match the statewide sales tax of 4.85 percent sales tax on food. It would likely be coupled with a grocery tax credit to offset disproportionate burden on low income families. This is only one of many options that will be considered throughout the next few weeks.
The next task force meeting will be held on September 5 at 4:00 pm at the Capitol to explore additional options. Continue to stay engaged throughout the process by providing feedback online at StrongerFutures.utah.gov.
You can listen to the committee meeting and review meeting materials here.
As you may have heard in the news, vaping and the use of e-cigarettes is a growing concern in our state. With the large variety of devices and flavors available, these products often appeal to the youth in our community, who may feel that they are a safer alternative to ‘traditional’ tobacco products such as cigarettes.
However, since these products first appeared on the market, healthcare workers and lawmakers have been alarmed and have raised questions about the purity of the vaping liquid and the long-term negative health effects that it can cause. Several vaping liquids available on the market have been found to contain harmful chemicals and drug contaminants, and frequently do not contain the advertised quantity of chemicals such as nicotine.
There have also been a handful of cases in Utah of youth who vape have experienced severe health problems with their lungs. Four committees have been tasked with studying this issue, each with a different perspective. One recommendation is to increase the tax on vaping products. Data shows when tax on a product like these goes up, purchase and consumption from youth decrease dramatically. Another recommendation is to include an educational component to teach students and parents about the dangers of e-cigarettes. It is likely that legislation will be considered during the next general session dealing with this issue.
You can listen to the committee discussion here.
Fires in the state have been below average in comparison to last year according to a recent Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands report. Statistics for Utah’s 2019 fire season thus far:
- 34,118 acres burned to date compared to 450,000 acres burned last year
- 2/3 of fires have occurred on state and private land
- 75 percent of fires in Utah are human-caused
- $2.2 million is the estimated state
To prioritize higher-risk areas and create wildfire awareness across the state the Utah Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal was launched. It provides wildfire information to the public, local communities, landowners, local government and wildland fire managers. Fire season is expected to continue for the next couple of weeks. The online tool conveys information about wildfire risks, data and prevention efforts. Learn about fire threats that may occur in your area here.
Listen to the committee discussion here.
Utah is one of the driest and fastest-growing states in the nation, creating challenges for a population that is expected to double by 2060. Maintaining strong farms, healthy aquifers, rivers, lakes and wetlands is another challenge to review. A diverse advisory group, the State Water Strategy, is working to update, revise and recommend a 50-year state water plan. The recommendation consists of 11 key policy questions to consider to help ensure Utah has enough water for years to come. Including how much water conservation can help, how to preserve natural systems with the increasing demands on water, how to best protect and sustain our water quality and how to fund innovative solutions to maintain, replace and redesign existing water infrastructures. See the full report here.
You can listen to the committee meeting and review meeting materials here.
Following Utah’s lead and urging, the Federal Communications Commission recommended the National Suicide Prevention Hotline change from a ten-digit number to a three-digit number.
In 2014, a legislative commission formed to explore solutions to the rising rate of suicides among the youth of our state while advocating for a three-digit national number for those struggling with mental health crises. In 2016, Utah rolled out SafeUT, a statewide service that provides real-time crisis intervention and a confidential tip program in middle, junior high and high schools. In 2018, it was expanded to higher education institutions and technical colleges.
Help primarily is provided through text, which has been shown to be most effective in working with youth. It also provides the option for a call directly to a crisis-line counselor. Enrolled schools are listed in the app and school administrators are trained to handle tips received through the app.
During the last school year, the SafeUT app received 245 tips of potential school threats, including reports of explosives, guns, knives and planned school attacks. Over 20,000 chats were logged on the app last year, and over 12,000 confidential tips were submitted to school administrators with concerns such as bullying, threats or violence. Students, parents, and administrators are seeing the tangible benefits of SafeUT in their schools. Sam Rey, the superintendent of North Sanpete District, credits SafeUT as the reason that the district hasn’t experienced a suicide in several years.
Legislators, along with Utah state and federal leaders developed and funded the SafeUT app in collaboration with University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI), the Utah State Office of Education and the Attorney General’s Office.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or struggling with mental health, you can speak with a crisis counselor on the SafeUT app for free or call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
Apprenticeship programs are unique by offering experience and opportunities at the same time. Utah is the first state to create a position of commissioner of apprenticeship programs within the Department of Workforce Services. The law, which passed during the 2019 session, outlines three main components.
- Promote the opportunities that apprenticeships can offer.
- Connect with industry partners.
- Report progress and any recommendations for apprenticeships in the state. How it works is an individual can complete an apprenticeship with partnering industries at no charge, earn money while learning a set of skills and receive a credential at the end for job opportunities.
The office of apprenticeships reported Utah has 221 apprenticeship sponsors, seven new sponsors this year and 150 have five or more apprentices. There are currently 3,752 apprentices in Utah with 654 new apprentices this year.
Learn more about apprenticeship programs in Utah here. You can listen to the committee meeting here.
Senator Ron Winterton
Utah Senate District 26