Sen. Howard Stephenson joins exit line now 20 members long from the Utah Legislature

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Sen. Howard Stephenson, left, R-Draper, and Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, enjoy a chuckle at a committee hearing on Sept. 21, 2016. The two join a long line of lawmakers who aren't running for re-election this year.

There were gasps in the Senate chamber when Sen. Howard Stephenson, a Draper Republican who championed efforts to lower taxes and keep them from rising in his public and private jobs, announced his retirement on the final night of the 2018 legislative session.

“I’ve never experienced air being sucked out of a room before,” he said in an interview Monday.

Stephenson, who has served since 1993, said he’d accomplished what he’d set out to do and wouldn’t seek re-election this November.

For years he advocated for the state’s truth-in-taxation law, which lowers property tax rates when home and business values rise to prevent passive tax hikes. And he championed charter schools. This session he lamented poor charter school performance and also voted in favor of freezing property taxes to raise money for schools.

He said he’d continue to follow those issues after his retirement.

Stephenson wasn’t the only lawmaker to announce that the final gavel of the 2018 legislative session would be his last. In what is being described as typical legislative churn, nearly 1 in 5 sitting lawmakers won’t try to return to their seats next year.

Those retirements include big names, but legislators say they aren’t concerned about the prospect of a Capitol Hill brain drain.

“I’m not worried about it. We’ve always had those that have been there for 20 years or more that will help remind us of that institutional history,” said Stephenson, chairman of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee and, in his full-time job, president of the Utah Taxpayers Association. “It’s healthy to have a rotation.”

Stephenson was joined by Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, who said he’d quit after two decades of experience in the statehouse.

“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” said Knudson, an 80-year-old orthodontist who has served in the House and Senate since 1995. “That’s about where I’m at: an old soldier that’s about to fade away. I will not run for re-election.”

Rep. Scott Sandall has filed to replace Knudson, one of 16 House districts that will have a new representative next year. Rep. Dan McCay, an influential lawmaker on the House taxation committee, announced he’d run to replace Stephenson.

Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo, has filed to run for a Utah County Senate seat that’s currently held by Sen. Margaret Dayton, a conservative stalwart from Orem who’s served in the House and Senate since 1996 and plans to run again.

While some described the number of vacancies as larger than in recent years, others remember years with a large turnover.

“When I was elected to the Senate 18 years ago there were eight [new members] that came in just from the Senate out of 29,” said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. “It’s hard to believe I’m one of the more senior guys now.”

Still, there will be new faces in at least three top positions after the next election.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, who served in the House for 16 years, four as speaker, has announced he won’t run again for his Draper district. And while he hasn’t disclosed his post-legislative plans, his name is included in lists of possible candidates for higher office, including governor.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, will return next year but has said he likely won’t bid for the top leadership post.

As previously reported, Rep. Mike Noel, who championed rural issues and was a vocal critic of environmentalists during his 16 years as a legislator, will also call it quits. He was chairman of the House Rules Committee, where nearly every bill’s fate begins. If a bill had a shot at becoming law, it first had to make it past Noel.

House departures

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City — served since 2009 (District 24)

Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake — served since 2009 (District 20)

Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden — served since 2014 (District 7)

Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville — served since 2007 (District 8)

Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove — served since 2013 (District 57)

Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo — served since 2007 (District 61)

Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper — served since 2003 (District 51)

Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine — served since 2013 (District 27)

Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton — served since 2013; running for Senate (District 41)

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab — served since 2003 (District 73)

Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden — served since 2011 (District 9)

Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden — served since 2011 (District 10)

Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan — served since 2013 (District 4)

Rep. Scott Sandall, Tremonton — served since 2015; running for Senate (District 1)

Rep. Curt Webb, R-Logan — served since 2009 (District 5)

Rep. John Westwood, R-Cedar City — served since 2013 (District 72)

Sixteen members (of 75): 15 Republicans, one Democrat.

Senate departures

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City — served since 2013

Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City — served since 1995 in the House and Senate

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper — served since 1993

Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal — served since 2007

Four members (of 29): three Republicans, one Democrat.