Do Utahns want school vouchers? Why the state’s top lawmakers think so.

During the first day of Utah’s 2023 legislative session, tax cuts, teacher pay raises and school vouchers were on the front of lawmakers’ agendas.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, makes remarks on the first day of the Legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Utah’s lawmakers took their oaths of office on Tuesday morning, kicking off the 45-day sprint that is the 2023 legislative session.

The Legislature’s primary duty over the next seven weeks is crafting the state’s budget, but there will be plenty of focus on education, taxes, water policy and social issues along the way.

Utah’s 45-day legislative session is the shortest in the United States. Lawmakers don’t officially meet on the weekends, so they are only in the Capitol for 33 days.

Last year, House Speaker Brad Wilson’s opening day remarks focused on leading by example, what he dubbed “The Utah Way” of doing things. On Tuesday morning, Wilson ditched the sloganeering for concrete policy proposals, calling on lawmakers to pass “historic tax cuts” and give teachers a pay raise.

“Let’s give Utah teachers their largest pay raise in the history of our state, and let’s make sure that increase goes directly into their paychecks,” Wilson said.

Last month, Gov. Spencer Cox floated a $6,000 increase in teacher compensation in his own budget proposal. That pay raise will likely come with a catch. Legislative Republicans are planning to make any pay raise for teachers contingent on passing school choice legislation.

Utah voters overwhelmingly rejected a school vouchers bill in 2007. House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said Tuesday he thinks the time is right for lawmakers to take another run at letting parents use public funds to pay for private education.

“We’re in a much different time today than in 2007. The tide is shifting and parents want options for their kids. Public schools in Utah are great, but it’s not what fits everybody. It’s not for every kid,” Schultz said.

House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said she is opposed to funneling public money into private schools, and would rather put those funds toward other programs that would improve educational outcomes.

“Why don’t we invest in smaller schools? Why don’t we invest in full-time kindergarten? Why don’t we ensure we’re providing after-school programs to support families? There are so many things we can use that money for that I just don’t feel like we’re really even giving credit to or paying attention to,” Romero said.

Wilson also borrowed a page from past governors’ “State of the State” addresses by bringing several special guests to the floor, putting a human face on some of the big decisions lawmakers face this year. To highlight the rising cost of living, he recognized the Meyer family from Northern Utah, who have been looking for suitable housing for more than a year.

“The Meyers want to live in Utah. They appreciate our values, and they want their boys to grow up near their family. But when you add high gas prices and the inflated cost of groceries to Utah’s expensive housing and childcare, you can see how a family doing everything you could ask of them view the American dream as something always just out of reach,” Wilson said.

“We have your back,” Wilson added as lawmakers applauded.

Wilson touched on pushing back against perceived overreach by the federal government — an issue popular with Utah Republicans.

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He also brought up election integrity, which has become a popular issue within the GOP following Donald Trump’s false claims of a fraudulent election. While not embracing the election fraud narrative, Wilson pointed to a recently completed audit of the state’s election systems that called for new procedures to improve and verify the results of the balloting.

“Upholding the election process is key to our democracy, and our state will continue to provide proper oversight and ensure election integrity. Utah has high standards for elections because we proactively look for ways to improve our process and build trust,” Wilson said.

Adams and the tax cuts — again

In his speech opening up the session, Senate President Stuart Adams took on a range of issues in his speech, tossing out policy proposals on water, education, public transit and housing.

Adams said — again, for the third year in a row — that 2023 will be the “year of the tax cut,” a goal in line with one Cox laid out in his budget.

On water, expected to be one of the hottest issues this session as the Great Salt Lake continues to dry up and threaten the livelihoods of millions of Utahns, Adams said the state needs to find “innovative” ways to conserve. Among the ideas he floated were subsurface drip systems, cloud seeding and desalination.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Stuart Adams gives the 2023 General Session Opening Speech in the Senate Chamber, on the opening day of the Utah Legislative Session, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

After calling for education budget increases and a pay raise for teachers, like Wilson, Adams said, “that is not good enough.” Referencing the school voucher legislation Republicans plan to push through, he said, “We must provide the option for parents to use their tax dollars to select the best education for their child, whether it is charter, public, private or home school.”

In response to a question about a school vouchers bill’s failure when it was put in front of Utah voters in 2007, Adams said he thinks the pandemic has swayed public opinion on the topic.

“I can’t tell you how many parents ... all over the state wanted the ability to have their kids go to school where they had control,” Adams said, later adding, “I do believe there’s been a change. I believe it passionately.”

To help Utah cope with the increasing pressure of a growing population, Adams wants to reintroduce state assistance for first-time home buyers and boost public transit.

“It is time we fix FrontRunner,” Adams said, adding that he would like to eliminate at-grade crossings and double-track the Wasatch Front commuter train so that it can reach speeds of 150 miles per hour.

“Utah’s public transportation needs to be competitive with driving an automobile,” Adams said. “We do not have room in Farmington or at the Point of the Mountain for another freeway. A functional, efficient FrontRunner is the answer.”

Seemingly referencing the Dobbs decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there is not a constitutional right to an abortion, Adams said, “The Supreme Court has very clearly and in no uncertain terms reestablished that many of the powers of government rightly belong to the states. We have known this for some time.”

But in media availability following the speech, he remained mum on what goals surrounding abortion he has for the session, saying, “I think there are multiple bills in the house, we’ll see how they run.”

State Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, has opened a bill file for a proposal to amend the Utah Constitution to address rights relating to abortion. On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, has introduced a bill to remove a provision in the state’s trigger law — which is currently being held up in court — that requires a physician to verify a rape or incest has been reported to law enforcement before performing an abortion.

“I think that it’s a choice between a doctor and family, and it’s a very private decision and sometimes it’s under dire circumstances,” Riebe said.

On Tuesday, Riebe was elected as minority whip, the No. 2 leadership position for the Democrats. Riebe succeeds Karen Mayne, who retired prior to the session due to health issues, in that position.

More than a House speech?

There are growing whispers among Capitol Hill lobbyists and Republican Party stalwarts that Wilson may have his eye on a run at a higher office, perhaps governor or U.S. Senate.

The theme of Wilson’s address was facing adversity and having the courage to make hard choices.

“Big and small, good, bad and necessary, decisions are made that create a ripple effect. And sometimes, the really big ones have an outsized impact,” Wilson said. “It has become crystal clear to me that as a state we stand at one of those rare moments where our choices will ripple for generations.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, takes an oath of office for speaker on the first day of the Legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Wilson, as House speaker, would have to buck recent history to be successful in a statewide election.

Former Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens famously crashed out of the 2004 GOP gubernatorial nomination race.

On Tuesday morning, former Speaker Nolan Karras administered the oath of office to Wilson. Karras also ran for the GOP nomination for governor in 2004, finishing second to Jon Huntsman.

Correction • This story has been updated to correctly identify Marty Stephens.