Utah Legislature says it’s the year of tax cuts and COVID-19 resistance, again

Legislative leaders also promise action on the ongoing drought during the next 44 days.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Highway Patrol posts the colors for the start of the 2022 legislative session in the Senate chamber at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

Fresh out of COVID-19 quarantine, Senate President Stuart Adams opened the 2022 legislative session on Tuesday by setting the stage for an attempt to quash county mask mandates and other government health orders.

“I have full confidence in Utahns’ ability to use good judgment to make personal choices without interference from the government,” the Layton Republican said. “Doctors and patients should decide what is best for individuals, not an employer or a government agency.”

The annual 45 days of lawmaking opened as Utah is grappling with some of the nation’s highest coronavirus case rates; Adams himself contracted the disease last week and completed his five days of isolation barely in time for the session to start.

The Senate president was still testing positive for the virus by Tuesday morning, although he initially said his results were negative. Several legislative interns, who are required to undergo biweekly rapid testing, were also positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, officials said.

In his opening address to the Senate chamber, Adams said he believes the state should do everything it can to acquire vaccines, antiviral pills and monoclonal antibodies to help combat COVID-19. But government requirements should not be part of the anti-pandemic strategy, he said.

Hours later, the Senate pushed through a resolution that would terminate mask orders in Salt Lake and Summit counties and Salt Lake City, and the chamber is also poised to consider a bill curbing mayoral emergency powers. Other state lawmakers have introduced measures to limit vaccine mandates issued by businesses and government officials.

In his opening day speech, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, commiserated with his colleagues over a sense of fatigue from a constant drumbeat of challenges facing the state.

“We have depleted hospital capacity across the state and exhausted healthcare workers. We live in a time when there are widespread disagreements on government mandates. To top it all off, it’s an election year,” Wilson said.

But Adams suggested to a group of reporters that the omicron surge could actually have a silver lining by helping people gain immunity against more dangerous strains of the disease.

“I know that’s hard to imagine, but talk to the medical professionals, and that’s what I’m hearing from the medical experts,” he said. “We’re not sitting back. We’re not doing nothing. We’re doing everything we can.”

‘Year of the tax cut’

Throughout his speech, Wilson repeatedly returned to the theme of the “Utah Way” of doing things in a collaborative manner.

“The ‘Utah Way’ is not government overreach, it is not a nanny state and it surely is not high taxes or burdensome regulation that saps the energy of our industrious people,” Wilson said.

In the Senate, Adams said 2022 will be the “year of the tax cut,” a declaration he also made in 2021.

“But it will be larger this time,” he added.

State lawmakers have set aside $160 million this year for tax relief, with legislative leaders expressing interest in providing it by reducing income tax rates.

But there are other ideas about the best use of those funds. Gov. Spencer Cox has called for putting that money toward a grocery tax credit for low- and moderate-income families, while many anti-poverty advocates want the state to eliminate the sales tax on food.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) House speaker Brad Wilson R-Kaysville, addressing the House of Representatives as the start of the 2022 legislative session begins at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

In the House, Wilson also teed up the coming push for tax cuts.

Additionally, the speaker workshopped his standup act by taking good-natured shots at his colleagues.

“Over the next 45 days, we are going to consider more than a thousand bills, most of which I believe are Rep. (Steve) Eliason’s,” Wilson said. The Sandy Republican has opened 25 bill files, among the most in the Legislature.

“Somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 of those will become law. If history serves as an adequate measuring stick, very few of them will be Representative (Brian) King’s,” Wilson said, poking fun at the idea of Democrats passing legislation in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

Challenges ahead

Adams praised Utah’s strong economy but identified labor shortages and “skyrocketing inflation” as impending threats to the state’s financial security. He blamed the federal government for fueling both problems.

“Utah can drop gas prices if the federal government will just get out of the way,” he said. “We can and will make the move to renewables. But we can make that move without increasing gas prices and crippling our economy.”

He also said too much “free’ federal money has enabled people to stay unemployed and implored Utahns to get back to work if they can.

Adams addressed Utah’s drought-induced water crisis by touting the Bear River and Lake Powell projects — both of which would worsen the crisis by diverting even more water from the depleted Great Salt Lake and Colorado River, respectively, according to environmental advocates.

“Farmers are the backbone of our state, and their livelihoods and our tables rely on their ability to utilize water sources,” he said. “We must preserve this life-sustaining resource.”