As they do this time every year, Utah lawmakers headed into the state Capitol on Tuesday to begin 45 days of policymaking. But aside from the timing, little felt routine about the legislative kickoff clouded by armed protests and a deadly pandemic.
The Capitol building — which was temporarily closed to the public and under a state of emergency order due to the threat of unrest — was quiet on Tuesday, without the usual throngs of school children, lobbyists and members of the public. Some lawmakers participated virtually, and those who were on site had to test negative for COVID-19 to gain access to the floor. Once there, many wore masks, with a plexiglass barrier separating desks in the House.
“What a difference a pandemic makes,” Senate President Stuart Adams said during his opening speech, reflecting on the changes from this session to the last, when “physical distancing” wasn’t a part of regular vocabulary and “none of us imagined a day when we would need to stockpile face masks, hand sanitizer and toilet paper.”
Federal aid, state tax cuts and school funding
Divvying up new federal pandemic relief funds will be among the first tasks facing lawmakers, who will channel aid to programs and communities hit hard by the pandemic. But legislative leaders don’t expect the session to revolve around damage control alone and predict that Utah’s relative economic resilience will enable them to strengthen education funding and even provide tax relief.
The form that tax cut will take has yet to be determined, but Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams say legislators are thinking of providing relief for Social Security recipients, restoring a dependent exemption, cutting taxes for retired military members or even decreasing the income tax rate across the board.
The 2021 session, Adams said Tuesday, “will be the year of the tax cut.”
Wilson reiterated that aim in his opening-day speeches, noting that the Legislature had set aside $80 million for tax relief two sessions ago and that it was time to “put this money back in the hands of the people of our state.”
“Let’s finish what we started and work to find the most appropriate way to provide that relief,” he said.
Lawmakers have also made education investment a priority for the session, and they’ve advanced a budget plan that would award $1,500 one-time bonuses to teachers and increase per-pupil funding by about $140 million. Adams said he hopes additional revenue will allow the state to boost aid to schools even further this session.
Wilson, Adams and newly inaugurated Gov. Spencer Cox are also aligned in seeking to improve equity in education, with House Republicans indicating they’ll “support legislation to more fairly allocate state education funding to all districts throughout the state.”
Cox has expressed concern that, for instance, rural students and children on Salt Lake City’s west side can suffer from disparities in their school systems compared to peers in more affluent areas.
The House speaker said he sees this education equity effort as responsive to last year’s protests for racial justice. While those demonstrations focused heavily on police violence, Wilson argues that state leaders need to take a “proactive” approach by addressing systemic issues that can contribute to clashes between residents and law enforcement.
With police shootings in Utah often involving someone who’s suicidal or in a crisis, Wilson said bills to strengthen the state’s mental health services are also part of answering the recent cries for justice.
“We’ve got great law enforcement here in Utah,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement in terms of our policies, but sometimes we need to make sure we’re digging at the roots, not hacking at the leaves.”
Adams indicated during his opening-day speech that mental health will be a legislative priority in the Senate, as well, something he said has become even more important during a pandemic that has isolated many people from the community. He also wants to allocate funding to alleviate congestion caused by the state’s rapid population growth, to improve trail and park capacity and to“develop our communities and economy.”
As part of that last aim, he said economic development at the Point of the Mountain, Silicon Slopes and the inland port “will be top priorities.”
Wilson also indicated that economic development will be a particular focus for lawmakers in the House as they get down to work this year, noting that there is “significant room for improvement” to make the state more business friendly.
“Let’s work together to create a new chapter in our economic prosperity playbook; one that rewards all businesses looking to grow in our state, one that makes this more than just the place to add jobs, but the right place to anchor thriving enterprises; and one that creates opportunities in rural Utah and incentivizes remote work that takes jobs to where our people live,” he said.
Lawmakers are anticipating nearly $1 billion in extra one-time revenue this year that they hope to spend on a number of projects which may include improvements to the FrontRunner rail system and an investment in state park maintenance.
The 2021 session could also see a move to finish some long-delayed water projects, including the Lake Powell Pipeline.
“The time has come to get serious about water projects that have been talked about so extensively for so long they seem mythical,” Wilson said. “Let’s reach out to our neighboring states and work toward a solution that will ensure Utahns have access to the water we need and that is rightfully ours. The Colorado River Compact allocates more water to Utah than we currently take and the process to change that begins now.”
As the legislative session gets underway, lawmakers welcomed nearly 20 new members to the House and Senate. One of them, incoming Rep. Rosemary Lesser, is taking the place of former Rep. LaWanna “Lou” Shurtliff, an Ogden Democrat who died in December and was honored Tuesday by her colleagues and family members.
Though some lawmakers brought friends and family to opening day, the state Capitol remains closed to the public — something Wilson said he and Adams will likely reevaluate that toward the end of the week. But they believe that new remote participation opportunities will enable residents and groups to remain connected to the legislative session in the meantime.
During his opening day speech, Adams encouraged Utahns to get involved in the legislative process, arguing that such engagement is necessary to ensure lawmakers advance the best policy.
Voice of the people: louder than ever or MIA?
“This year, more than ever, we need the voice of the people,” he said. “Moms and dads who cannot leave their children at home can now participate. Working individuals who cannot leave their 9-to-5 job can now participate. Rural Utahns who live six hours away can now participate. Those who have never been part of the legislative process before, this is your year.”
Still, not everyone is convinced the Utah Legislature should convene on Tuesday.
Citing the importance of ensuring Utahns’ voices are heard in today’s tense political climate, a group of rural county commissioners recently signed on to a letter calling on the Legislature to delay the start of its session until residents and lobbyists can be in person.
The letter said Utahns are suffering from “digital burnout,” “crave face-to-face interaction” and may feel unheard — a condition they said has in the past led to extreme measures, like vandalism, violence and protests at the homes of civil servants.
“Without real interaction and citizen involvement beyond lobbyists, resentment will continue to foment,” the letter states, according to a version Iron County Commissioner Paul Cozzens shared on his Facebook page. “Digital meetings may suffice for planning, logistics, and education, but a sterile electronic environment is no place to connect with those who are hurting.”
The letter ends with a request that lawmakers “find the courage to meet people at the capitol.”
“For the sake of the countless Utahans (sic) worried about their delinquent mortgage or rent payments, for the sake of business owners trying to keep workers employed, and for the sake of Utah’s silent forgotten, we ask you to open up the people’s house,” it states.
Among the county commissioners who signed on to the letter was Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney, San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee and Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson.
Correction: 2:30 p.m., Jan. 20 • An earlier version of this story included a photo of Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City. She was misidentified in the caption.