Utah’s 45-day legislative session began Monday with pomp, circumstance and a call by new House Speaker Brad Wilson for record-setting tax cuts.
The House and Senate swore in a large batch of new members and officiated a leadership changeover as they convened for their first day of lawmaking in 2019. After taking the gavel in the House, Wilson urged his chamber to focus on the future of a rapidly growing state.
"Despite our high quality of life and recent success, there are threats to this prosperity that we must be prepared for," the Kaysville Republican said. "Rapid growth, presenting both an opportunity and a challenge, demands thoughtful and careful planning."
With that in the background, legislators should turn attention to water, transportation, air quality, affordable housing and education, he said. Reforming an outdated sales tax system while offering tax relief to Utahns should also be a priority, Wilson said.
While Gov. Gary Herbert has suggested a $200 million tax cut, Wilson said he has something even bigger in mind.
“An even better idea would be to deliver this session the largest single tax cut in Utah state history of at least $225 million,” Wilson said, the chamber breaking into applause.
The Utah Taxpayers Association confirmed that a tax reduction of this size would be the state’s largest, topping the roughly $220 million cut spearheaded by former Gov. Jon Huntsman in 2007.
Herbert has advocated for administering the relief via a sales tax rate reduction, but the taxpayers association and some lawmakers have expressed a preference for easing the income tax burden instead. Either way, Howard Stephenson, former legislator and president of the taxpayers association, said state leaders are obligated to pass along to Utahns the revenues they’re gaining with the expansion of the online sales tax.
“And it’s easily done this year, because our economy is going so well and our tax revenues are going up, so now it’s time to give back,” Stephenson said.
But talk of a tax cut comes at a time when state analysts are warning of an impending recession, which would further reduce revenue available for government spending.
House Minority Leader Brian King said he’s also concerned that slashing taxes will jeopardize funding for public schools, which rely on income taxes for sustenance.
“The thing that troubles me is that I think we need to acknowledge more forthrightly the need for greater revenue for public and higher ed,” he said.
And multiple bills have been introduced to repeal or significantly curtail Proposition 3, a full Medicaid-expansion plan approved by voters in November that included an increase of the state sales tax.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said members of the Senate minority caucus are committed to funding Medicaid expansion, rather than looking for ways to scale back from the ballot initiative.
“We’re going to protect as much of Prop 3 as possible,” she said.
In his opening remarks to the House, Wilson also cited an ongoing parking crunch around the Capitol and said he’s pushing for a proposal to replace the aging State Office Building with a new facility where “Utahns can come and experience a deeper connection to our state’s rich history and the artifacts and pieces that we have.”
The plan could also help ease the parking challenges on Capitol Hill, he said.
Minutes later, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, expressed similar support for a new Capitol parking garage in what appeared to be the clearest and most concise shared priority between the two chamber leaders. Adams later told reporters that the additional parking could be incorporated into a larger construction project to preserve the aesthetics of Capitol Hill.
“We think it’s really challenging for the public to be able to find a spot to park here,” Adams said. “This complex is such a significant spot that we want to do it right.”
The idea of replacing the state Office Building — which sits behind the Capitol and forms a quadrant with the House and Senate office buildings — has floated around for years, and a local architectural firm is currently studying various plans for the spot, said Allyson Gamble, executive director of the Capitol Preservation Board. Gamble said part of the discussion is about possibly relocating some of the agencies that work in the building, which now accommodates state administrative services, finance, human resources and risk management, among others.
With surface lots and underground parking providing about 1,100 spaces on Capitol Hill, the preservation board this month approved a plan to build a parking structure that would add 300 spots in place of an upper lot, Gamble said. The board could, alternatively, consider putting those additional spaces below-ground near the state Office Building.
However, the idea of dedicating part of the replacement office building to presenting historical artifacts was a new one to Gamble. Speaking to the press, Wilson explained that many of the state’s historical treasures are tucked away in a basement managed by the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, and he’d love to see them on public display somewhere in the Capitol complex.
Both Wilson and Gamble said it is too early to estimate the cost of overhauling the office building and its surroundings.
During the morning session, outgoing House Speaker Greg Hughes, who’d held the post since 2015, seemed to be savoring his last few minutes at the dais as he swore in new and returning lawmakers.
“I’m milking it,” he admitted before retiring his gavel, a large hunk of wood he compared to a “thunder god’s hammer.” To the new speaker, Hughes presented an even bigger gavel, hewn from Utah mahogany.
King predicted that — compared to Hughes — Wilson will bring a low-key leadership style to the Utah House.
“I think that he’s a little less likely to fight and a little more willing and likely to find a way to work through problems amicably,” said King, D-Salt Lake City, although he added he’s enjoyed a good relationship with Hughes over the years.
Wilson began his first address as House speaker by recounting early Mormon leader Brigham Young’s role in pushing the transcontinental railroad to its 1869 completion, despite labor and logistical snafus that threatened the project.
“The strength, industry and forward thinking that defined Brigham Young in this effort can and should define the men and women in this chamber,” Wilson said.
Adams' opening remarks in the Senate focused on the American Revolution, with the new Senate president saying that the original colonial leaders created more opportunity for more people than any comparable group in world history. He then praised Utah’s senators and challenged them to continue in the American tradition of collaboration, representation and democratization.
“You should be proud,” Adams told Utah senators. “You are a leader in the greatest state in the greatest country in the history of the world.”
By running for office and wining their elections, Adams said, the Utah Legislature had accepted the responsibility of building a better Utah for the next century. That includes creating an education system in which students can grow academically and socially in a safe environment, Adams said, a broad and sustainable tax base and a health care system that’s affordable to all.
The Senate president also appeared to criticize the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., that led to a record 34-day shutdown of the federal government. To build a better Utah, Adams said, leaders of different backgrounds must unite.
“We can’t shut down,” Adams said. “We won’t shut down.”
Adam’s comments on the tax base did not include a call for a tax cut. And he told reporters that Wilson’s speech was the first he had heard of the speaker’s pitch to return $225 million to taxpayers. But dwindling sales tax revenue has posed a challenge to the state’s budgets, Adams said, as fewer transactions in the state fall under traditional, taxable sales.
“We know we’ve got a problem,” Adams said. “We used to buy our lawnmower, now we have our lawns mowed.”
While Republicans continue to hold a supermajority in both chambers of the Utah Legislature, the minority Democratic contingent grew after the November election — adding one new senator and three House members. In the Senate, Minority Leader Karen Mayne, R-West Valley City, said there is a “new energy” in her caucus, and expressed optimism that Democratic lawmakers’ good ideas will be heard by their Republican colleagues.
“The more we work together,” Mayne said, “the more we understand each other.”