Legislature tackles first session in revamped Capitol with $1B in new revenue
Lawmakers filed into the newly renovated Capitol building to kick off the 2008 legislative session, slogging through heavy snowstorms and internal glitches that held up the day's pageantry and speeches.
"It's sort of like a new pair of shoes," said Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. "They look great and stylish, but it takes a few days to break them in."
Legislative leaders, with about $1 billion in new revenue to work with, have committed to a substantial increase in education funding, plan to hammer out the first phase of health care reform, and hope to find money left over to offer some property tax relief.
Already, legislators are on track to file nearly 1,200 bills, easily a record, ranging from banning the sale of malt beverages in grocery stores to protecting pets from torture to proposals to split the state in half and to change the state tree.
Hard-hat-wearing workers were painting the gold touches on the ornamental trim on stairways and walls.
They worked through the weekend preparing for the session, the first in the new Capitol since the building closed in 2004 for more than $225 million in renovations to help it withstand a potential earthquake.
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, used the building as a symbol of how lawmakers should be firm, but flexible.
"The building is built upon a fault line - it's been about 1,300 years since the last 6.7 earthquake. This new building can flex up to 24 inches in any direction and still be anchored," Valentine said. "It also can fracture along ideological lines of a party . . . at times along the lines of ego and pride."
House Speaker Greg Curtis urged representatives to be judicious and fair as they do their work.
Several glitches hampered keeping to a timely schedule.
Dust settled into parts of the elevators, whose doors did not shut properly each time.
"We had a couple people stuck in the elevators," said David Hart, Capitol architect.
In the Senate, Valentine said he couldn't see anyone from the dais.
"We've got to figure out some way to solve that. We'll have some growing pains and we might need to make some changes," he said.
In the House, lawmakers had to give voice votes instead of punching a computer button.
While that was fixed later in the day, representatives struggled to pull up bills on their laptops to review them quickly before voting on them. Several pages and interns wore mittens and scarves as cold air wafted through the House chamber.
However, lawmakers continued what may be the last year of the tradition of honoring Martin Luther King Jr. during opening ceremonies.
Last year they passed legislation to amend the Constitution to push back the session's start.
It will be put before voters for approval in November.
Catholic Bishop John Wester addressed the House, commemorating King's life.
"Dr. King allowed grace to guide him, and he did lead us a long, long way. Sadly, we have a long way to go," Wester said.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, a Draper Republican, hailed King's letter from the Birmingham, Ala., jail as a document that every school child should know as they do the Declaration of Independence.
Stephenson in an interview said he believes that the current immigration crisis is in effect a "neo-slavery practice."
In earlier remarks from the Senate floor, he said, "We have a cancer today, right here in Utah and in the United States, involving undocumented workers and their treatment," Stephenson said, adding that he hopes sound immigration legislation can take place at the federal level more quickly than the 100 years it took to get the Civil Rights Act in place.
Valentine called the comments "poignant" and pointed to Washington's inaction as argument for state solutions.
"We have made great strides in civil rights but we have new challenges with immigration," Valentine said. "The federal government has failed to solve the problem so that states must deal with the task of making legal immigration humane."
While the impromptu speeches on King's legacy may have focused on immigration, the House and Senate leadership agreed education would take priority this session. House leaders also emphasized transportation, health care and property tax relief.
Both houses said they were ready to pass laws.
"We need to be problem solvers," Valentine said. "Like this building, we need to be both flexible and firmly anchored to a strong foundation."
* ROBERT GEHRKE contributed to this report