Utah Rep. Brad Wilson and Sen. Stuart Adams strolled into top posts in their respective legislative chambers Thursday without a single challenger to stand in their path.
Wilson, a self-described “accidental politician,” will lead the Utah House of Representatives, succeeding outgoing House Speaker Greg Hughes. Adams will take the place of exiting Senate President Wayne Niederhauser.
The two men were picked by fellow Republican lawmakers, who dominate both chambers of the Legislature. During the closed-door balloting, the legislators also elected new leadership teams for the GOP House and Senate caucuses.
As Wilson assumes the House speaker position, he’s focused on dealing with the state’s growth and what it means for Utah’s air quality, roadways and water, he said. He also wants to work on the state’s economic development strategy and finding money for education, he said.
But he has no interest in doing so through tax hikes, he said.
“My appetite for tax increases is about as low as it could be,” he told a group of reporters after Thursday evening’s election.
That being said, he does see the need to review the state’s tax system, which he argues is built on an outmoded economic model. Utahns are increasingly spending their money in ways not captured by the state’s sales tax, he said.
“So we’ve got some budget constraints that are challenging for us long-term,” the Kaysville resident said.
Wilson has risen quickly through the House ranks since he was first elected to the Legislature in 2010. He became the chamber’s majority leader in 2016 and has helped guide an effort to relocate a state prison in Draper to a location near Salt Lake City International Airport.
During debate over the prison relocation, Wilson did not reveal that his company was building town houses near the aging prison. He told The Salt Lake Tribune the disclosure was unnecessary because his company, Destination Homes, had already sold the townhomes long before officials shared details about the prison move.
Both Wilson and Adams were expected to run for the leadership positions, and neither of the Republicans faced opposition on their way to the dais.
"So, well ... I have a shot," Adams joked Thursday afternoon, before his Senate colleagues officially named him their next president.
As a senator, Adams sponsored a measure that will give Utah the strictest drunken-driving standard in the nation. The new rule, which takes effect in December, drops the blood alcohol threshold for driving under the influence from 0.08 to 0.05.
In a Thursday interview, Adams predicted that the Legislature will tackle issues of education funding, workforce development and growth management in coming sessions. They’ll also have to look at impacts from the Medicaid expansion that voters approved Tuesday.
While Niederhauser will still be Senate president during an upcoming special session on medicinal cannabis, Adams said he’s supportive of ongoing negotiations on a statewide medical marijuana program. And, under his watch, he doesn’t foresee the Senate dismantling the proposal.
“We’re not going to come in and get people to bait into this and then switch it on them,” he said.
Wilson said he approves of the drafted Utah Medical Cannabis Act and is committed to preserving it in the next general session except possibly to make technical tweaks.
A supporter of Question 1, the failed gas-tax measure meant to generate education funding, Adams said he doubts the Legislature will act on its own to raise the tax. Instead, a growing economy and expanding tax base will be the keys for finding additional money for schools, he said.
Adams said he’s actively involved in managing his real estate development firm, the Adams Co. As Senate president, he anticipates dealing with a number of growth-related issues and acknowledged some people might label this a “conflict of interest."
He doesn’t see it that way, pointing out that Utah’s Legislature is composed of citizen lawmakers who represent a wide range of industries and interests.
“I believe very strongly that those things that you might refer to as ‘conflicts’ ... are things that in my opinion are vested interests, to make sure that we do get it right. Because if we don’t get it right, we penalize ourselves,” he said.
During Thursday night’s elections, Sen. Evan Vickers of Cedar City was chosen as the chamber’s majority leader, while Sen. Dan Hemmert of Orem was picked for majority whip and Sen. Ann Millner of Ogden for assistant majority whip. Sen. Jerry Stevenson of Layton will keep his post as executive appropriations chair.
On the House side, Rep. Francis Gibson of Mapleton was elected as majority leader, Rep. Mike Schultz of Hooper as majority whip and Rep. Val Peterson of Orem as majority assistant whip.
The new leaders will begin their two-year terms on Jan. 1.