How did the 2016 Utah Legislative Session affect Utah kids?

10 March 2016 Written by  


Utah has dropped to 47th in the nation for children’s health insurance coverage, falling behind states that have expanded Medicaid and reduced barriers to access for families in need. The Utah Legislature took several steps to address the problem during the 2016 session:

kids pose for photo utah capitol 2016 02 09 13.08.48

  • Removed the 5-year waiting period for lawfully residing immigrant children to receive CHIP or Medicaid (HB 2, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield). The Department of Health will be able to start covering legal permanent resident children who are otherwise eligible for CHIP and Medicaid. HB 2 builds on previous efforts from the 2012 General Session (SB 111, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City).
  • Allocated state funding to the Department of Health for CHIP and Medicaid outreach to connect more children with coverage. These state funds will be matched by the federal government (HB 3, Rep. Dean Sanpei, R-Provo).
  • Directed the Utah Department of Health to study barriers to children's enrollment in health insurance and the option to implement 12-month continuous eligibility for children on Medicaid. Continuous eligibility would allow children to maintain Medicaid coverage for one full year, even if families experience a change in income or family status (HB 2, Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan).
  • Changed Medicaid eligibility requirements to cover an estimated 3,800 additional parents by raising the income eligibility ceiling for parents with children to 55% FPL (HB 437, Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville). Data show that as parents gain coverage, they also enroll their children. Expanding access for parents is also good for kids because it prevents medical bankruptcy and helps parents maintain their health so they can care for their children. This bill is a first step; it is a starting point to our continued efforts to bring comprehensive and affordable healthcare coverage to the tens of thousands of families in the coverage gap.

For the third consecutive year, the Legislature rejected a comprehensive plan to bring federal Medicaid expansion dollars to Utah, which would have brought health coverage to tens of thousands of Utahns who are too poor to qualify for tax credits for health insurance (SB 77, Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake County). Voices for Utah Children will continue to support full Medicaid expansion in 2017.

medicaid expansion press conference 2016 02 24 10.07.01

Early Childhood Education

teens at utah capitol 2016 03 03 09.18.00The big win in early childhood education this session was the passage of High Quality School Readiness Expansion (SB 101, Sen. Ann Millner, R-Davis, Morgan & Weber Counties). More than $11 million—mostly federal money—will go toward expanding access to high quality Pre-K and as many as 4,000 at-risk children will have the opportunity to attend high quality preschool through this expansion. These children are primarily those experiencing intergenerational poverty, many of whom show early signs of academic struggles.

Two other bills proposed allowing school districts to offer optional extended-day kindergarten, which would help provide extra instructional time for struggling learners (HB 41, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy; HB 42, Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George). These bills ultimately did not pass, but they clearly showed growing support among lawmakers for early learning in Utah. Rep. Lowry Snow’s enhanced kindergarten bill came very close to passing this year, and we are hopeful about the prospects in 2017.

Funding Children’s Needs

2016 01 28 10.50It's been over a decade since Utah's explosion of budget earmarks began diverting General Fund revenues to the Transportation Fund. Currently, over half a billion dollars are earmarked every year to make up for the Legislature's decision to not allow transportation revenues such as the gas tax to keep up with inflation and the state's growing needs. Restoring these earmarked revenues to the General Fund would help address unmet needs in education, social services, and other underfunded priorities.

In 2015, the Legislature’s own Tax Review Commission recommended ending most of these earmarks and returning the funds to the General Fund in accordance with fiscal best practices. Instead, the Legislature agreed to a messy compromise that restores a small portionutah capitol kids on stairs 2016 03 09 13.03.58 of the earmarked revenues to the General Fund while at the same time more deeply entrenching the earmarks practice by diverting one of the earmarks from transportation to water infrastructure (SB 80, Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Davis County).

Unfortunately, the 2016 Legislature took no action to restore public revenues, which have reached a multi-decade low, according to the Utah Foundation, and focused instead on busines tax cuts.  Tax cutting bills that passed included HB 61, which broadens the application of "single sales factor" apportionment in the corporate income tax at a projected cost of about $3 million annually (HB 61, Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman). The Legislature also spent quite a bit of time on HB 180, which sought to expand a sales tax exemption for certain businesses at a cost of $83 million annually. HB 180 passed the House overwhelmingly and then won a unanimous vote in the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee the week before Sine Die. Fortunately, fiscal prudence prevailed in the Rules Committee, and the bill was never brought to a final vote on the Senate floor (HB 180, Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville).

Addressing the Gender Gap

kids balcony utah state capitol 2016 03 03 10.05.30 2Utah has the fourth highest gender gap in wages in the nation. In 2016, Voices for Utah Children and other organizations formed the Utah Women’s Coalition to support legislation that protects female workers and ensures that women can provide for their children. The Utah Legislature passed two bills supported by the Utah Women’s Coalition:

  • Requiring employers with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding (SB 59, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Davis & Salt Lake Counties).
  • Increasing penalties for employers who discriminate in employee compensation (SB 185, Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake County). Unfortunately, the final version of the bill removed a provision providing for greater salary transparency, which has been shown to reduce unjustified compensation disparities.

Juvenile Justice Reform

rotunda utah capitol 2016 03 03 09.41.29The 2016 Legislature took some important steps toward improving juvenile justice in Utah:

  • Prohibited sentencing children to life without parole (HB 405, Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George). This important step recognizes a fundamental principle that guides all our work: kids are not adults. Regardless of whether it is healthcare, education, or criminal justice, our systems must recognize and be tailored to address the unique needs of children.
  • Addressed the school-to-prison pipeline by clarifying the roles of school resource officers (SROs) and requiring the State Board of Education to create a curriculum to help train officers in schools (HB 460, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City). This important piece of legislation will help prevent everyday school disciplinary issues from escalating into criminal justice issues. Our education system should do everything we can to help children stay in school and learning. This legislation will help do that.


Thank you to all whose efforts contributed to 2016 legislative victories for Utah kids.

kids walking utah capitol 2016 03 09 13.00.59

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For 30 years now, Voices for Utah Children has called on our state, federal and local leaders to put children’s needs first. But the work is not done. The children of 30 years ago now have children of their own. Too many of these children are growing up in poverty, without access to healthcare or quality educational opportunities.

How can you be involved?

Make a tax-deductible donation to Voices for Utah Children—or join our Network with a monthly donation of $20 or more.  Network membership includes complimentary admission to Network events with food, socializing, and opportunity to meet child advocacy experts. And don't forget to join our listserv to stay informed!

We look forward to the future of Voices for Utah Children and we hope you will be a part of our next 30 years.

Special thanks to American Express for sponsoring our 30th Anniversary Year. Amex

April Young Bennett 300April Young Bennett, Communications Director, joined the organization in 2014. She received her Master of Public Administration from the University of Arizona and her Bachelor in Community Health Education from Utah State University. Prior to joining Voices for Utah Children, April worked for the Utah Department of Health for over a decade, addressing health disparities among minorities and other underserved Utahns. She completed internships and fellowships with the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System, the Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy and the U.S. Senate.