Utah Legislature kicks off 2024 with country music and prayer as lawmakers eye energy, education policies

Tuesday marks the first day of the Utah Legislature’s 45 days of lawmaking. Lawmakers will debate an array of issues from the state budget to culture war issues.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, bangs the gavel to open the 2024 legislative session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. Lawmakers are expected to consider hundreds of bills over the 45-day period.

Utah lawmakers migrated to the Capitol on Tuesday for the kickoff of the 2024 general session. The Legislature will spend the next couple of months hammering out the details on an array of issues from next year’s budget — a top priority — to social media regulations and energy policy.

The Utah Senate gaveled into session on Tuesday morning to prayer and a county music rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by musician Cole Hartley. After the national anthem, Hartley, armed with an acoustic guitar, was joined by state Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, on fiddle, to entertain the full Senate gallery with one more tune.

Utah has the shortest legislative session in the United States at 45 days and will gavel out on March 1. Lawmakers typically don’t meet on weekends, so they really have just 34 days to conduct the state’s business. During that time, they also plan to tackle Utah’s housing shortage and homelessness, fund schools, cut taxes, and a plethora of other issues. The GOP supermajority will also take time to dig into culture war issues like transgender rights and cracking down on diversity programs at Utah’s public colleges and universities.

Last year, lawmakers introduced more than 900 bills and resolutions, passing 575 of them before they were finished. Before the session even gaveled in on Tuesday morning, more than 400 proposed pieces of legislation had been published on the legislative website.

Gov. Spencer Cox says housing issues are one of his top priorities this year, and he is confident lawmakers will be able to find a workable solution.

“The price of housing in Utah and all across the nation has just exploded. It’s just unsustainable,” Cox said. “We have to increase supply. Lots of states are trying to figure out how to do this. I think we have some really innovative minds.”

This will be the third straight year lawmakers have introduced legislation targeting transgender rights. In 2022, lawmakers overrode Cox’s veto of a ban on transgender athletes participating in women’s sporting events. Last year, it took less than two weeks for lawmakers to ram through a ban on gender-affirming care for Utah youth who are transgender. Cox signed that bill. This year, there will be at least two proposed pieces of legislation to place further limits on transgender individuals in the state.

Cox acknowledges that transgender rights are a hot-button political issue that could inflame emotions on both sides.

“People are concerned about this issue, and women’s spaces are very important. We have to make sure that the work that has been done to protect women and women’s rights is protected here. We also absolutely need to be sensitive to our transgender community. I’ve tried to do that, tried to be a voice for that.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Legislative business begins at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. Lawmakers are expected to consider hundreds of bills over the 45-day period.

Speaker Schultz addresses the Utah House

Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, began his first session piloting the House on Tuesday with a joke.

“It’s easy to play the short game. It’s easy to lose sight of the end goal. It’s easy to want instant gratification. There’s a Spanish word for that, I believe it’s pronounced ‘California,’” Schultz said, prompting chuckles from his colleagues.

The Utahn was elected speaker just over two months ago following the resignation of Brad Wilson, who stepped down to run for U.S. Senate. Former Speaker Greg Hughes was in the gallery during Schultz’s opening remarks. Hughes played a pivotal role in Schultz’s political rise, assigning him to the powerful House Rules Committee as a freshman lawmaker.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former house speaker Greg Hughes, center, is pictured in the gallery as he attends the opening of the 2024 legislative session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Schultz promised to shake up the status quo during his time on the dais.

“I keep hearing people saying they’re nervous for me to be the speaker – and they should be,” Schultz said. “This isn’t going to be business as usual. Some of you may like that. Some of you may hate it. And I’m okay with that.”

He also urged his colleagues not to avoid the controversial and complex issues they will confront this year.

“This session will undoubtedly bring many big decisions – some of them will be easy, and some of them hard,” he told the House. “So, I ask each of us: Will we step up to the plate to make the right decisions? Will we take a step back and make sure we’re not giving up what we want most — what Utah needs most — for something we want now?”

President Adams speaks to the Utah Senate

Senate President Stuart Adams, on the edge of his 70s, started his sixth year leading the chamber by hearkening back to a speech delivered by President Ronald Reagan in Hooper, a small town in western Weber County.

“President Reagan stood for something,” the Republican lawmaker told the Senate. “In my opinion, he stood for the principles that have made America great: a place where women and men are free because the government is limited ... .”

Who is included among those men and women may change this year, as Republican lawmakers consider legally viewing women as “an individual whose biological reproductive system is of the general type that functions to produce ova” and men as “an individual whose biological reproductive system is of the general type that functions to fertilize the ova of a female.” Those definitions would amend numerous areas of state code to exclude transgender people from certain spaces and opportunities.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, gives an address at the Senate at the 2024 legislative session at the Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Adams avoided such hot-button issues coming out of the House when talking about the state’s culture during his opening-day remarks. Instead, he focused on continuing to fight challenges to social media regulations passed by lawmakers last year, and cutting taxes — again.

Amid lower-than-expected revenues in the first half of Utah’s fiscal year, Cox did not recommend any tax cuts in his 2025 budget. But lawmakers are eyeing them anyway.

“The best way to support families is to ensure they keep as much of their hard-earned money as possible,” Adams said. “We have cut taxes again, again and again, for three straight years, and we will make the same effort this year. As with any cut, we will measure twice, cut once, and act reasonably with an eye to the future.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are bracing for another year of the Republican supermajority pursuing and passing policies contrary to the minority party’s priorities.

Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, of Salt Lake City, said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

“Our caucus, Mr. President, is committed to protecting the freedoms of all Utahns so they can pursue happiness and quality of life,” the Democratic leader said while standing on the Senate floor.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, gives remarks during Senate floor time at the 2024 legislative session at the Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

Democrats’ focus

In a meeting with minority leaders and reporters, Escamilla and House Speaker Angela Romero listed off their priorities — many of which are shared by Senate and House Democrats, including: “education equity, environmental sustainability, and the dismantling of systems of inequality.” The Senate minority leader acknowledged that the party will spend a lot of its time pushing back on measures it disagrees with from the GOP.

“We’re fighting for our freedom to be healthy, prosperous and safe — that’s our priority,” Escamilla said. “We recognize that we have bills that we prioritize, but sometimes we have to be on the defensive when it comes to legislation.”

Among those bills, Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday, are the pieces of legislation that would restrict transgender Utahns’ rights and rollback diversity, equity and inclusion policies across public institutions.

Bills on both of those issues, made public Thursday, are scheduled for their first public votes Wednesday. Romero criticized majority leadership for putting the bills on such a short timeline, saying it takes away the public’s opportunity to weigh in.

“We push the legislation through,” Romero said, “and this is why people feel like they don’t have a voice.”

Salt Lake Tribune politics editor Jeff Parrott contributed to this story.