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Utah Legislature 2022: Bills to up film tax incentives, ban car ‘selfies’ advance

A bill meant to protect health care workers from violence and a rule change to limit press access in the Utah Senate won final legislative approval during a busy morning for the Utah Legislature on Tuesday.

The Senate also advanced a slew of other bills, including one to allow increased tax incentives for rural film productions — the day after the Deseret News first reported that Kevin Costner is eyeing Utah for the filming of five movies, but only if the legislation wins approval. The Senate also advanced a bill targeting drag racing on Utah’s streets and another to crack down on Utahns taking “selfies” while driving.

The House on Tuesday also advanced a bill to require police to release body camera footage within 10 days under certain circumstances, and another bill allowing optometrists to perform three specific treatments using lasers.

Here’s a breakdown of those bills:

Health care worker violence

All health care workers in Utah could soon be covered with expanded protection against assault and threats of violence, after HB32 passed the Senate unanimously.

If signed by Gov. Spencer Cox, the bill would make it a class A misdemeanor for an “assault or threat of violence against a health facility employee” and would make it a third-degree felony if an assault “causes substantial bodily injury.”

Those enhanced penalties are already in place for emergency room workers, but would be expanded to all workers after incidents of belligerent patients have increased — anecdotally, at least — in the last couple of years.

When the bill was first introduced in January, Utah was in the midst of a surge of COVID-19 patients — fueled by the omicron variant of the virus. Bill sponsor Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, told the Deseret News he saw the bill as a way of providing “moral and legal support” to the “heroes” who work in health care.

HB32 passed the House 56-16 and was unanimously recommended by the Senate Business and Labor Committee.

Media access in the Senate

The Senate also finalized SR1, which requires journalists to get permission from senators or chairpersons in order to stand behind the dais in a committee room. It also requires journalists to get permission from a Senate staff media designee or a senator before accessing the Senate floor or adjacent hallways for interviews with lawmakers.

In a committee hearing last week, media representatives spoke in opposition to the rule, arguing that it will make it harder to report on the Legislature, in turn reducing transparency and accountability for lawmakers.

The rule passed a preliminary vote on Monday, during which sponsor Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, made the case that the rule will protect lawmakers from potential security threats.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said during the committee hearing that he expects he will grant permission to media members in most cases, having seen only two instances of disruptive behavior by the media in his 22 years of legislative service.

Luring ‘Yellowstone’ and Kevin Costner back to Utah

The Senate also passed SB49, which would remove tax incentive limits on rural film productions, including Paramount’s “Yellowstone” series — which filmed the majority of its first three seasons in Utah before moving to Montana after the state raised its cap on incentives.

Kevin Costner has plans for a Western cinematic universe spanning five films, which could add more than $50 million to the economy where the films are shot. Costner has expressed interest in returning to Utah to make the films, but would likely look elsewhere if the state doesn’t increase its incentives.

“I’ve dreamed for a long time about making my movie in Utah and scouting the state has been an incredible experience. My biggest hope is that the state backs SB49 and that dream becomes a reality. I don’t really want to go anywhere else with these five movies,” he said in a statement to the Deseret News.

Bill sponsor Sen. Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt, said it would provide millions to rural economies in Utah, as it has the potential to bring more film productions to the state.

“We incentivize a lot of things in the state of Utah. … There’s a lot of people that are incentivized to move here just to participate in this amazing economy,” said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton. “So I’m definitely in favor. … I’d like to try it and see if this works.”

But not everyone is on board with the move. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, spoke against the bill, quoting an email from a constituent which called it “a handout to Hollywood millionaires and billionaires.” Because the tax credit is refundable, he said, the studios would end up getting more money than they add to the state’s economy.

“We might as well just write a check to fund the 20% operations of turkey farms that are in the same (rural areas) and there would be no difference,” said Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan. “I cannot imagine why we regularly vote to (subsidize) one favored industry.”

SB49 passed 20-7 and will be sent to the House for consideration.

Optometrist vs. ophthalmologist

If you don’t know the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist, you’re not alone. But the distinction was the source of extended debate between lawmakers after Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, proposed a bill that would let optometrists perform certain laser procedures.

Optometrists are doctors of optometry, but not medical doctors. Ophthalmologists, on the other hand, are required to complete four years of a residency after medical school and are considered medical doctors.

Ophthalmologists are qualified to perform a variety of eye procedures but under HB224, optometrists would also be licensed to perform a handful of simple procedures — excluding Lasik, which is more complex.

According to Dunnigan, the change would make it easier for Utahns to access care, especially in rural areas that may not have an ophthalmologist. Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, argued that there is only one ophthalmologist between Cedar City and Payson.

“This bill will give us access, choice in rural Utah for what we need, those procedures,” he said.

Dunnigan pointed out that nine other states have already adopted similar laws.

“We’ve never had an incident (in those states), not one,” Albrecht said. “The world’s not going to fall apart if we pass this bill.”

During debate, Rep. Nelson Abbot, R-Orem, introduced a change to the bill that would prevent an optometrist from arguing in court that they’re held to a lower standard of care “should something go wrong” during a procedure.

Potential safety concerns were the primary argument from lawmakers who were opposed to the bill. Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, said she opposed the bill in order to “maximize patient safety.”

“When we’re talking about a laser procedure, there is no such thing as primary care for a laser procedure,” she said.

In an opinion published in the Deseret News, ophthalmologist Christian Hess called the bill “ill-conceived” and “a solution in search of a problem.” He argued that the bill would “shortchange eye patients” by placing their care in the hands of those with less experience and training.

“Also, while lasers make possible a wide array of effective and beneficial procedures, there remains the possibility of mishap or injury,” Hess wrote. “Our years of training greatly reduce that risk, but it is still there. If something untoward occurs during even the simplest surgery, it is vital that the attending professionals have the equipment, skill and medical training to respond quickly and correctly.”

HB224 passed the House 48-23 and will head to the Senate.

Car ‘selfies,’ street racing, police body camera footage and use of force

The House and Senate passed a handful of other bills on Tuesday morning, all of which still need to be approved by the other chamber for final approval.

  • After 2020 saw a 467% increase in calls to the Salt Lake Police Department about illegal street racing, the Senate passed SB53, which would include certain speeding violations in Utah’s reckless driving code.

The bill would create a minimum fine for driving over 100 miles per hour and would make participating in a street race a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a fine of as much as $2,500.

  • The Senate also passed a bill prohibiting motorist “selfies,” or the use of a phone to view or take photos or videos while driving.

SB102, sponsored by Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan, also amends the automobile homicide charge to specify it applies when “using a wireless communication device while operating a motor vehicle.”

  • The House passed a bill that would require that, upon request, law enforcement agencies release the recording of “an incident between an officer and an individual that results in death or serious injury, or during which an officer fires a weapon.”

HB260 would require that police agencies release the recordings within 10 days if a prosecutor decides not to file charges or if a judge determines that release of the recording wouldn’t substantially prejudice potential jurors in the case.

  • The House unanimously passed a bill that would require more timely investigations into police use of force incidents. HB123, sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, would require that investigations into an officer’s use of force be completed within 180 days.

If a county or district attorney needs longer to complete an investigation, they are required to post a public statement with an explanation for the delay and an estimate time for completion.

An earlier version of the bill also stated that prior to use of deadly force, an officer “shall identify himself or herself … and give a clear oral warning of his or her intent to use a firearm or other physical force.” The language was watered down in the final version, which now only specifies that an officer “may” identify themselves and give a warning.