Westwater excavation

Legislative Recap 2020

davidwicaiBlog, Legislature, Museum

This year’s legislative session began with the dramatic repeal of a tax reform package and ended with an exploding global pandemic.

All things considered, the Department of Heritage & Arts fared relatively well during the 45 days that those two events bookended. While the department didn’t get everything it requested, it also didn’t lose much and even benefitted from a couple of unexpected surprises.

Here are some of the highlights for the department from this year’s session.

Arts and museums grants: A top priority for the department was securing the additional $3 million in funding for the grants pool. When the session began, the department had the support of Gov. Gary Herbert and positive indicators from legislators.

Then, tax reform collapsed and a good chunk of the general fund surplus disappeared back into the education fund. Instead of close to a $200 million general fund surplus, legislators had less than $50 million. (You can read a more detailed explanation here).

In the end, the Legislature only appropriated an additional $1 million, and only from one-time funds. That was disappointing, because one-time funding makes it difficult to build a sustainable grants program.

But there were upsides to the process. Many legislators complimented the Arts & Museums grants program for its fairness, accountability, and transparency. They also appreciated that the number of organizations requested direct funding dropped significantly, which saves them valuable time.

The MLK License Plate: For years, the MLK Commission has tried unsuccessfully to get a license plate printed that honors the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. This year, they decided to pursue a free plate that could be chosen alongside the Arches plate, Ski Utah, and In God We Trust.

I had little faith this plate would get approved. Legislators generally hate license plates — even the In God We Trust plate had to prove itself as a paid plate before they switched it to free. And legislators love trusting God. Additionally, the bill came out very late in the session and was run by a Democrat.

In other words, I saw three strikes to its passage. Sometimes, it’s good to be wrong.

The bill was approved the final evening, and soon will be a fourth choice for a free license plate.

Department foundation: To help prepare for the opening of the Museum of Utah, the department needs a tool to collect donations from individuals and corporations. These funds will primarily cover the costs of exhibitions at the new museum. Many corporations can only donate to nonprofits, however, so the department requested the authorization to create a 501(c)3. Legislators approved the bill on the second-to-last day of the session.

Cultural stewardship: Despite the tight budget, legislators were able to fund a new program and full-time employee in State History that will focus on protecting and preserving cultural sites, especially archaeological.

World War 2 Memorial: Somewhat surprisingly, legislative leaders provided $100,000 for the ongoing effort to build a World War 2 memorial in the state. This project began last year with the formation of a commission, managed by State History, and public meetings around the state.

American Indian/Alaskan Native issues: The Legislature made a number of decisions that help Utah’s tribes and other AI/AN residents. First, they approved funding for Indian Affairs to shore up their budget. In the Health Department, the Legislature approved the creation of a program for AI/AN health with a full-time liaison, and for education they made permanent a program to recruit and retain quality teachers in schools with high AI/An student populations. A task force to study the issue of missing and murdered indigenous and LGBTQ+ women was also approved. Finally, legislators approved $500,000 to help connect the Westwater community outside of Bluff to the municipal utilities.

The picture with this post shows an excavation at the Westwater ruins in San Juan County, courtesy Utah Division of State History.