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DEI, energy, transgender facility restrictions: What to expect from the 2024 Utah Legislature

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DEI, energy, transgender facility restrictions: What to expect from the 2024 Utah Legislature

Jan 09, 2024 | 7:30 am ET
By Katie McKellar
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DEI, energy, transgender facility restrictions: What to expect from the 2024 Utah Legislature
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The Utah State Capitol on Dec. 21, 2023. (Photo by Alex Goodlett for Utah News Dispatch)

The Utah Legislature’s 45-day session begins in one week, and the state’s Republican leaders have a long list of priorities, with their sights set on diversity, equity and inclusion practices, transgender facility access and energy policy, to name just three.

Ahead of the session, Utah News Dispatch sat down individually with the state’s Republican leaders — Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, and newly elected House Speaker Mike Schultz — to discuss their priorities for this year’s legislative session. The Dispatch also spoke with Democratic caucus leaders, Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla and House Minority Leader Angela Romero, to discuss their expectations, hopes and concerns for the upcoming session. 

If this year is anything like past sessions, there will be partisan disagreements, perhaps some ugly fights. However, Democrats are hopeful Utah’s GOP supermajority will continue to include them in conversations — something Schultz, as the House’s new speaker, pledged he will do as he searches for what he called “win-win” solutions that also “put Utahns first.” 

“We’re going to get stuff done in Utah either way because we have the supermajority, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right way to go about it,” Schultz said, noting he sought House Democrats’ support ahead of his election as speaker while also asking to find ways to work together. 

“You know, on certain issues we’ll go our partisan ways and agree to disagree, and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Schultz, R-Hooper, said. “But I think it’s how we do it and the approach we take that’s the most important.” 

So what issues should Utahns be watching for this year?

Republican leaders are focusing their crosshairs on diversity, equity and inclusion policies, particularly within higher education. There will likely be multiple bills that crop up in this sphere, though recently the governor and Republican lawmakers including Schultz publicly blasted universities for including DEI statements in their hiring practices, arguing they’ve created a culture of “exclusion” rather than inclusion. 

Amid the federal government’s push for clean energy to combat climate change, Republicans say new regulations are forcing coal-fired plants to shutter too early — so Utah’s legislative leaders are placing energy as a top priority this year. 

And continuing with a pattern over the last several years, Utah GOP lawmakers again have their eyes on transgender issues. At least two Republican House members say they plan to file bills restricting transgender access in bathrooms and other facilities in publicly-owned buildings, but one favored by legislative leaders is expected to be inspired by other states’ “Women’s Bill of Rights” bills while focusing on both men’s and women’s facilities and expanding single-stall and unisex privacy options.

Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson present the governor's proposed budget during a press conference.
Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson present the governor’s budget recommendation during a press conference in West Haven on December 5, 2023. (Courtesy of Utah Governor’s Office).

As for budget discussions, the governor has big asks for housing and homelessness, though Republican legislative leaders may not fund everything he’s asking for. At the same time, they do want to cut Utah’s income tax again, arguing it will help stimulate Utah’s economy to generate more tax revenue in the future. 

Other big budget items on their priority lists are water, transportation, infrastructure and education, but what gets funded all comes down to the budgeting process. 

Here’s more on what to expect on Utah’s Capitol Hill during the session set to begin Jan. 16. 

DEI and higher education

Last year, a slew of bills challenging diversity, equity and inclusion practices surfaced in the 2023 Utah Legislature. Several didn’t pass, while one, HB427, gained approval after it was watered down to limit how K-12 educators can discuss racism, sexism, ageism and religious discrimination in classrooms. 

“I think you’ll see those come back in a big way,” Cox said of last year’s DEI bills. “We’ll be working very closely with legislators, with the board of higher ed, university presidents and others trying to shape those in ways that actually accomplish what I think they’re intended to accomplish and just aren’t doing.” 

Adams, R-Layton, and Schultz also said DEI will be a big focus during this year’s session, though details of what legislation will entail are so far scant and will come as bills are filed. 

Critics of diversity, equity and inclusion policies claim they give certain groups of people — people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people and other groups who have been historically underrepresented — an unfair advantage. However, proponents of the programs say they’re meant to affirm differences across backgrounds and increase diverse representation so all types of people feel welcome, have equal opportunities and are included.  

Recently, the governor and Republican lawmakers including Schultz publicly blasted universities for including DEI statements in their hiring practices. Cox said during his December PBS Utah news conference he would “absolutely sign” legislation targeting DEI statements in university hiring, arguing they haven’t accomplished what they’re meant to accomplish.

 

“But what does the rest of this look like?” the governor added. “I want to figure that out. And those are the discussions that are happening right now. It may be funding. It may be what are we using that funding for? Is there something better we can use it for to actually get the outcomes that everybody is hoping for? Those are the types of conversations we’ll have.”

While Cox said minority kids today “are actually going to college at higher rates than ever before in our state’s history,” and “that’s good,” he said there is still a “gap” when it comes to completion rates. “Some of our multicultural students, they’re starting but they’re not finishing. … The proliferation of DEI programs hasn’t changed that.” 

Meanwhile, Cox said “there are too many white kids that are starting college and not finishing. … When it comes to starting college and finishing college, men have dropped off a cliff over the past 20 years. We don’t talk about it much anymore because it used to be the other way (around) between men and women. … Now it’s completely flipped, and so we should be very worried about that.” 

Schultz said “our goal” is higher education opportunities and hiring practices “shouldn’t be based off of race.”

“It shouldn’t be based off of skin color,” Schultz said. “It shouldn’t be based off whether or not you can speak English or Spanish or any other language. It shouldn’t be based off of your income. … Let’s help all kids, right? And that’s where I really think higher ed overall needs to get back to is what can we help all kids, not all those that are deemed in the DEI space.” 

Schultz added: “Yes, let’s find ways to wrap our arms around those who may not be able to speak English and help them … they probably need more help, I’m not suggesting they don’t. But we should just do that as a whole holistically for everybody and not have these programs that create the divisions.” 

“So that’s the goal,” Schultz said, “to get rid of the programs that create the divisions and have become so divisive all across the nation and certainly here in Utah, and how can we get to where we’re helping everybody that needs the help.”

Multiple lawmakers including Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden; Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden; and Rep. Tim Jimenez, R-Tooele, are expected to run bills related to DEI. Adams said so will Sen. Keith Grover, R-Provo.

“He’s working with the universities, and I think we’ll find a great spot,” Adams said. “From what I’ve heard, most universities understand that there’s a challenge, and they’re all working to try to make sure we find the right policy.” He said there will be a focus on state spending and an effort to “make sure that it’s spent to lift everyone and not just a particular classroom.”

Adams added that “Martin Luther King (Jr.) had it right. You just judge people by their character and not by any other means. … We’ll try to make sure that whatever we do we treat people equally and fairly no matter what their economic, social or ethnic (backgrounds are).” 

Escamilla and Romero are both women of color, Escamilla an immigrant from Mexico and Romero a Latina who grew up in Utah. They both expressed concerns about the looming focus on DEI programs. 

Utah House Minority Leader Angela Romero
Utah House Minority Leader Angela Romero (Courtesy of Utah House Democrats)

“I’m not really sure what to expect because I haven’t seen language for any of the bills,” Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said. “So until I see language, I’m concerned about the misrepresentation of DEI and the misunderstanding of what DEI is and what it does.” 

Romero said she takes it “very personal because I am a product of DEI,” noting she’s a first-generation college student who found “support systems” within the University of Utah’s Center for Ethnic Student Affairs. “I do have great concerns. These programs have been working, and I’m proof.”

As for DEI statements in university hiring practices, Romero said she worries about how the issue is being framed. “I wouldn’t say anybody is being forced to sign a paper saying they pledge this, they’re just being asked their thoughts and their understanding, and there’s a reason for that.” 

She noted that especially in health care it’s important that “the people we are hiring understand the history of diverse individuals and the things that come with that.” As Utah becomes increasingly diverse, “I don’t see (diversity statements) as a deficit, I see it as a way of identifying people who have experience working with diverse populations, or if they don’t, training them on how to work with diverse populations.” 

Romero said Utah’s focus on DEI this year seems to be part of a “national trend” of Republican leaders reining in DEI programs, much like what was done with critical race theory in recent years. “Now it’s DEI.” 

Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said it’s the next “boogeyman” issue, and she’s still “trying to understand what the problem is.” She’s hopeful DEI issues can be hashed out in a “healthy process,” and she called on her colleagues not to “jump to conclusions.” 

“I want to make sure we focus on what we’re trying to get out of this, and that is I think our goal is to have more individuals participate in higher ed, whatever that looks like,” she said. 

“Not everyone has the same circumstances. We know people that are first-generation college students have a totally different experience regardless of your race or ethnicity,” Escamilla said. “So this is not about race or ethnicity. I think they’re trying to make it about that. I hope what people understand when we talk about DEI programs, it’s about systemic institutionalization of systems where you’re trying to open doors for others to succeed.” 

Escamilla added the “reality is lots of our federal funds” funneled to Utah institutions “are because of our diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.” Doing away with those programs could jeopardize that funding, she said.

Utah Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla
Utah Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla (Courtesy of Utah Senate Democrats)

“So (unless) the state is willing to lose in the hundreds of millions of dollars, especially (for) research institutions like University of Utah or Utah State University, we need to be very real about those conversations,” Escamilla said.

Energy

At the top of Senate Republicans’ 2024 priorities list is “progressing toward energy independence.” Both Adams and Schultz said energy is a No.1 priority for them — but it’s not yet clear what exactly that will mean during the session beyond continuing to fight the federal government’s push for clean energy. 

“All of these regulations are coming at us to close down our coal plants,” Schultz said, repeating Utah leaders’ concerns in their lawsuit against the EPA’s “good neighbor” interstate transport rule. 

The rule under the Clean Air Act enacts regulations to restrict how much air pollution from power plants can flow across state lines in efforts to limit pollutants, protect the ozone from degradation and combat climate change. Utah’s suit alleges the rule is a federal overreach designed to shutter Utah’s remaining coal-fired power plants early, which will result in increased energy prices. 

“Then the question has to be asked, then what?” Schultz said. “Shut them down, then what? Nobody has an answer.”

When pressed for specifics, Adams said Utah needs to develop its energy resources with an all-of-the-above approach. 

“We believe in diversification,” Adams said. “We’re going to continue to have that. We’ll look at coal. We’ll look at wind. We’ll look at solar. We’ll look at hydro. We’ll look at hydrogen. We’ll look at geothermal. We’ll look at natural gas. We will develop energy in a way to be able to provide reliable (service). We don’t want brown outs. … We want energy to be available so people have the quality of life they’ve experienced in Utah.” 

However, Schultz said it will take decades to develop energy sources in Utah like nuclear, and so in the meantime the state must also “fight to protect our reliable, dispatchable energy.” Right now, he said “the biggest thing we can do is the lawsuit, and we are going to continue to do that. It’s all hands on deck.”

“We should continue to expand on our solar, our renewable energy. Absolutely we should, and we will continue to do that,” Schultz said. “But that can’t meet the demand. … As a nation we’re expected to double our energy use over the next 20 years, Utah probably faster than that. I come back to ‘Then what?’”

“We will fight to keep the lights on in the state of Utah,” Schultz said. “We have to work with the federal government and tell them, ‘No, we are not going down this road.’”

Romero and Escamilla both pointed to issues outlined in a legislative audit released last year that concluded the Utah Office of Energy Development lacks defined goals and should be doing more to implement state energy policy. It stated Utah is at an “energy crossroads and needs better planning to meet future energy needs.” 

“International trends and pressures from the federal government and other states are driving an energy transition that impacts the state’s ‘any of the above’ energy policy,” the audit stated. “The Office of Energy Development will need to have a proactive plan that drives the state’s specific energy priorities and alleviates impacts to affordability and reliability.”

Escamilla said “we need to get organized as a state” when it comes to energy and the audit “provided some good mechanisms to get us there, and I know they are moving towards implementing some of those recommendations.” She said Utah needs to act in order to not leave behind “a lot of federal funds” when it comes to energy. 

Romero also pointed to the audit while also expressing concerns that many Utah legislators have been resistant to moving to renewable energy. 

“For many of my colleagues, they are very tied to coal,” she said. “And I understand that. The coal industry is part of their identity, it’s part of their communities. And so I can understand their resistance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with it.” 

Romero said she disagrees with Utah fighting federal requirements. 

“I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be concerns on how we transition our energy resources, and I’m not saying traditional energy will disappear overnight. But I really feel like the resistance from my colleagues on the other side of the aisle is not grounded in facts when it comes to clean energy, in particular when you’re talking about wind and solar.” 

“At the end of the day, we need to think about air quality,” she said. “We need to think about the Great Salt Lake, and all of this is tied to climate change. And you know, a lot of people don’t want to admit climate change is real, but it is. And what we are going to do to be better prepared so that we’re offering a future (for) our children.” 

LGBTQ+ issues: ‘Women’s Bill of Rights,’ bathrooms and transgender restrictions

Last year, within the first two weeks of the session, the Utah Legislature banned transgender surgeries for Utah children and teens and placed an indefinite moratorium on new treatments of cross-sex hormones for minors. The year before, Utah lawmakers passed an all-out ban on transgender female students participating on girls sports teams with a trigger provision to create a commission to determine athlete eligibility if a court placed a hold on the ban. With a lawsuit pending, the School Activity Eligibility Commission is in place and active today. 

This year, Utah lawmakers will again dive into transgender issues. There could be multiple bills, but the first Schultz pointed to was a bill he said will be run by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan.

“We can’t have biological males using biological females’ bathrooms or locker rooms. We’ve got to look at that and address that,” Schultz said, though Birkeland’s bill is expected to restrict transgender access in both men’s and women’s bathrooms, locker rooms and other types of facilities.

Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz
Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz (Courtesy of Utah House)

Asked if the bill would relate to state-owned buildings, Schultz said he personally thinks the restrictions should be “across the board, but we’ll see what bills come up.” The bill hasn’t been made public yet, but Birkeland said it will likely be focused on all public facilities, from city and county buildings to jail and prison facilities and more.

In response to a request for an interview for this story, Birkeland said she was still formulating the bill and wasn’t ready to speak about its specifics yet. However, she said the bill isn’t meant to target transgender individuals, but to help increase privacy options in public facilities for all people, regardless of sex or gender identity.

“(The bill) aims to ensure that there’s privacy for all Utahns,” Birkeland said. “That’s what I’m working towards.”

Marina Lowe, policy director for Equality Utah, Utah’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, said she expects at least two bills, one from Birkeland and also one from Rep. Phil Lyman, who is running for governor, relating to transgender restrictions in bathrooms and other types of facilities.

Lyman said his bill will be focused on defining “what is a boy and what is a girl,” while requiring that people of all “genders have to stay in the bathroom or locker room of the gender they were at birth,” and violations could be charged as a trespassing offense.

Birkeland’s bill stems from other states’ “Women’s Bill of Rights” bills. For example, in Kansas lawmakers have enacted legislation defining biological male and female sex and banning individuals who are born without the ability to produce eggs for reproduction from using women’s restrooms, locker rooms and other gender-specific areas. But Birkeland said her bill will also seek more “solutions” like opportunities for single-stall, unisex or non-gender specific private spaces in public buildings.

While legislative leaders were aware and complimentary of Birkeland’s bill, Lyman said he hasn’t sought their approval and he’s working on the bill independently. It’s possible the two bills could merge during the session, or one could be given priority over the other.

The bill or bills will likely tackle “not just bathrooms, but locker rooms, changing rooms, and could have consequences for prison, housing for domestic violence shelters” and other facilities, Lowe said. “What’s more worrying is who knows what else.”

Lowe said Equality Utah is aware and concerned about the looming bills. She said the advocacy group has been engaged in conversations with Birkeland for “a while” on this issue. “It’s the belief of Equality Utah that we can always find common ground, so we’ve been listening to her concerns … and trying to see if there is some way we can find some middle ground approach,” she said.

Lowe questions how these facility restrictions would be enforced — something she said she has yet to get a “satisfactory answer.” 

“The lawyer in me really struggles to understand how we wouldn’t be putting facilities in a really tenuous legal position by asking them to enforce bills that would either require some sort of intrusion of privacy or would encourage vigilante enforcement or would in some way encourage the opposite of what I think people are concerned about,” Lowe said.

For example, she said if a 17-year-old transgender male is required under state law to use a women’s bathroom, “to me that is extremely problematic and would raise real concerns. Unfortunately this type of legislation is going to create those types of scenarios,” she said. 

Adams said “there’s work to do” on the issue and he credited Birkeland for “doing a phenomenal job in finding the balance” in past issues like the transgender sports commission. 

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams
Utah Senate President Stuart Adams (Courtesy of Utah Senate)

“We need to be respectful of everyone, and hopefully that will be the outcome of this, is we’ll have respect for people no matter who they are,” Adams said. “We need to respect the girls and the boys that want privacy in their own bathrooms, and we also need to respect the trans community. I’m confident that she’ll find a way, like she has in the past, to thread that issue.” 

Romero said the Utah Legislature’s continued focus on restricting the LGBTQ+ community has been “really exhausting,” and she worries the legislation is harming transgender people, in particular. 

“It feels like we’re trying to erase people and who they are and pretend like they don’t exist,” she said. “It goes against all that we stand for as Utahns when we talk about freedoms.” 

Romero argued Utah should be focusing “on more important issues,” saying the “people we need to be worried about are not transgender individuals using a locker room or bathroom.” She argued the Legislature should spend more of its time focused on the Great Salt Lake, housing, homelessness, and other issues that have larger impacts to the state.

Budget priorities

Much of the session will be devoted to hashing out Utah’s $29.5 billion budget. Cox’s budget recommendation is only that — a recommendation, and ultimately what gets funded will come down to what lawmakers decide. And lawmakers are working with a limited amount of extra revenue. It’s a tighter budget year than past years because of the cooling economy and the end of federal stimulus money amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Cox made housing and homelessness centerpiece issues in his recommendation. He’s seeking $150 million for his Utah First Homes initiative, which includes $50 million more for the state’s new first-time homebuyer program focused on helping homebuyers afford new-build homes, $75 million for infrastructure expansion and $25 million for housing innovation and construction. He also recommended $45.5 million for affordable housing, including $30 million for deeply affordable housing, $5 million for gap financing and $10 million for housing preservation. 

For homelessness, Cox proposed nearly $128 million to bolster and expand the state’s current emergency shelter system, plus $7.9 million for behavioral health and $57 million for “prevention,” by “increasing accessible and affordable permanent housing opportunities.” 

Adams and Schultz largely share Cox’s priorities — but what gets funded is yet to be decided. They’re also keen on giving Utahns a tax cut, with the Executive Appropriations Committee having already set aside $160 million in ongoing money for what legislative leaders said will likely be an income tax cut. The speaker and president said they share Cox’s enthusiasm when it comes to housing, but they were noncommittal when it came to homelessness, saying the budget process needs to play out and there is not as much extra money this year to spend.

Cox also recommended over $1 billion in his budget for education and workforce initiatives, including $854.6 million in new appropriations for public education and teachers and $56.2 million for workforce expansion. That increase for education would include $11 million for teachers and a 5% increase in the weighted pupil unit. 

“We’re going to continue to fund education in Utah,” Adams said, adding that last year was a “phenomenal, record-breaking year” for education, with a nearly 20% increase that included a 6% increase to the value of the weighted pupil unit, or the per-pupil rate used to calculate how much money each school should receive. However, Adams said Utah might not fund education increases to the same extent as last year. 

“We’ll continue. They won’t be at the level of the past because we don’t have the revenue to do it, but there won’t be cuts,” Adams said. 

For water, Cox proposed an additional $81.6 million to build momentum on more than a billion dollars in investment toward water conservation over the past two years. That includes $27.9 million more for the Great Salt Lake, $25.7 million for infrastructure upgrades and $28 million toward watershed stewardship. 

Again, there “may not be enough money” to do everything, Adams said, but water continues to be a priority. “We’re not going to solve our water problems in Utah alone,” he said, adding Utah will work with other states to “find solutions” in the face of the shrinking Colorado River. “So it will be a combination … not just funding, but putting together policies that help us coordinate with other states and find solutions to our water issues.” 

Cox also recommended $162 million for transportation and recreation, including $40.5 million for recreation and open space, $47.7 million for air quality and $74.3 million for transportation. 

“As transportation demands increase, simply adding new lanes and roads will not be enough. Meaningful investments across our transportation system, including active transportation and public transit, will reduce the number of cars on our roads and improve road congestion and air quality,” Cox’s budget states. 

In particular, Adams said his “personal passion” lies with transportation, particularly “fixing” FrontRunner. “It needs to be double tracked. It needs to be electrified. It needs to run faster than vehicles, the speed needs to be moved from 79 (mph) to 150 (mph),” he said. 

Schultz said Utah needs to take an “all-of-the-above approach” when it comes to transportation. He said the state must invest in transit while also continuing to maintain and expand freeways and roads. 

“The worst thing about air quality is people stuck on the roads and congestion. But on the same token, we do need to increase opportunities for transit across the state,” Schultz said, adding “first and last mile” connections for transit through active transportation “is going to be one of the top priorities.” 

“As we grow,” Schultz said, “transit is going to become more and more important.”