When the Republican-dominated Legislature passed the largest tax increase in Utah’s history in 1987, one of its most-respected veterans, Sen. Kay Cornaby, R-Salt Lake, stood on the floor and warned lawmakers they would pay the price if they messed with the income tax.
They did and they paid, said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, remembering the wisdom and forcefulness of Cornaby, who died Monday at age 77 after a long illness.
In fact, Hillyard recalled, raising the income tax that year nearly cost Republican Gov. Norm Bangerter his re-election in 1988.
It was one of many examples of Cornaby’s insight and political acumen, according to former colleagues, including Bangerter, who almost became a rival of Cornaby in 1984.
“Kay was majority leader of the Senate when I was speaker of the House,” said Bangerter, who parlayed his position into a successful run for governor. “We worked well together and were able to accomplish some things between the Senate and House. He had a keen mind.”
But Cornaby was preparing to run against Bangerter for the GOP gubernatorial nod and, at one point, was considered the front-runner before he bowed out.
“We always were friends,” Bangerter said.
Cornaby, a patent and intellectual-property attorney who studied at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and earned a law degree from Harvard, was a longtime associate attorney for the law firm of Jones Waldo Holbrook & McDonough.
After holding several positions in the Utah Republican Party, he was appointed by Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson in 1977 to fill the vacant seat in Senate District 7, covering Salt Lake County’s east bench.
He won election to that seat in 1978 and remained in the Senate until his retirement in 1990. He was majority leader in 1983-84.
“Kay was strong on conservative principles,” former Sen. Richard Carling said, “but he wasn’t an ideologue.”
Carling said Cornaby would listen to all sides and counted good friends among Senate Democrats.
“My first year in the House, in 1987, I had sponsored one bill and I wanted it so badly to pass,” said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who after 10 years in the House became a senator and rose to Senate president. “On the last day of the session, my bill was on the board in the Senate, and I watched as other bills kept getting pushed ahead of it. I was afraid the session would end and my one bill wouldn’t even get a vote.”
So he turned to Cornaby, who moved to push Valentine’s bill to the front and got it passed. “This is the first of many,” Valentine remembered Cornaby telling him in encouragement. “Have a great legislative career.”
The bill in question: “Probate law amendments.”
Besides his business expertise, Cornaby took interest in laws intended to help troubled youths. He served at the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at the University of Michigan. He was honored as “legislator of the year” in 1980 by the Utah Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers for “consistently being at the forefront of social issues.”
A critic of the Utah Department of Corrections for locking up former inmates for minor parole violations, Cornaby nonetheless pushed for prison expansion.
He also was a strong supporter of law enforcement and a member of the Honorary Colonels Association of the Utah Highway Patrol.
Cornaby and his wife, Linda, have five children.