SALT LAKE CITY — Neatly groomed, not a hair out of place, Greg Hughes touched the scar on the top-right side of his head, recalling just how deep doctors had to cut to remove a basal cell cancer last year.
"I have to do a comb-over," the Utah House speaker joked.
Not long before the surgery, Hughes had met with Brian Besser, special agent in charge with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, "and he's freaking me out about opioids."
After the surgery, Hughes was asked whether he wanted anything for the pain, and he declined, at the time still being under the effects of anesthesia.
"I get home, and the pain from the anesthesia wears off, and it's like an alien trying to break out of my head," the Draper Republican recalled.
Hughes said he opted to take 800 milligrams of ibuprofen, which left him "uncomfortable, but I got through it."
"In hindsight, I think the diagnosis of 800 (milligrams) of ibuprofen and you're going to have some discomfort for a while — in some cases, not everyone's case, but in some cases — should be or could be the answer, where opioids right now are the alternative," he said.
Hughes shared that story and his perspective on pain management during a recent interview with the Deseret News from his office at the Capitol, reflecting on the first half of his final session as speaker and promoting the policies he wants to see advanced before the 2018 Legislature ends at midnight March 8.
The topic had been medicinal cannabis, specifically as it relates to a package of bills proposed by Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, addressing Utahns' access to medicinal marijuana, as well as cultivation and research into the plant.
Both bills have passed in the House, with Hughes voting in favor last week, and now await consideration in the Senate. Daw said he expects the bills to be heard in a Senate committee this week.
Hughes said he's hoping further study into medicinal uses for cannabis will provide a possible solution to the opioid crisis in Utah, as both deal with pain management.
"I think that should be our motivation for getting something over the finish line," he said. "Maybe the Brad Daw bill is too measured, too regulated (for some people)."
But that's as far as most state lawmakers are willing to go right now, he said. The potential for abuse of opioids has been well-documented, the speaker said, but charging down the path of using marijuana as a solution also causes him concern.
And for cannabis to be a possible solution, he said, it would require the federal government to act.
"If I could exercise my political influence (on medicinal cannabis) it would be on the federal government to get through these trials, to get through this (Food and Drug Administration) process," he said.
The federal government regulates drugs through the Controlled Substances Act, and cannabis remains classified as a Schedule 1 drug, just like cocaine and heroin, creating roadblocks to study for any medicinal benefit.
Other states are abandoning the "traditional process" for legalizing cannabis, however, "because it's not being addressed" by the federal government, Hughes said.
"Let's get that kind of scrutiny on this. That would be my ideal," he said.
Advocates for medicinal cannabis in Utah have criticized Daw's bills for limiting access to terminally ill patients, and for pushing those who want to use it to join specific studies that they say are too expensive and amount to a subscription to CBD oil, while prohibiting smoking and vaping as delivery methods for the drug.
Hughes says starting with the terminally ill makes sense.
"I'd like to start there and know that we're addressing pain management and some of those things, and maybe take it a little slower," he said.
The speaker said he also "can't get over the fact that it's still against the federal law."
"And, look, I'm a states' rights guy," he said. "If we want to fly in the face of federal law, why stop at marijuana? Let's talk (public) lands and keep going. I'm all about that."
Hughes said he wants to find out "the medicinal value of cannabis," which he says is a process. "If we can create some scaffolding to study it and get some answers, I'd feel better about it."
There's also pressure on the Legislature to act on medicinal cannabis because a ballot initiative campaign is underway to take the issues to voters in November. The Utah Patients Coalition says it has gathered more than enough signatures to meet the state's qualifying standards.
Hughes recalled attending a conference with House speakers from other states where medicinal cannabis measures have passed, "and they're telling us that the recreational marijuana campaign starts the night the final votes are counted," and that it doesn't stop there, that "it's just a continuation of the ultimate goal of legalizing marijuana recreationally."
"I have angst about those things," Hughes said, "and as I compare what's being proposed (in the initiative) with what Rep. Daw put together, I think that's a more measured approach.
With the session now more than halfway done, the House has some difficult tasks ahead, the speaker said. Hughes said he wants to see a tax cut, though he also wants to funnel more money into education.
"I'm working as hard as I can," he said. "I'm not going to take my foot off the gas. I want to finish on a high note."
Although there was a lot of talk about tax “modernization” before the session, little has happened so far. But that’s likely to change quickly once revenue estimates are updated.
“I think you’ll see something,” said Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton.
The final revenue estimates for the session should be announced Wednesday, Stevenson said, but he warned that those numbers could be skewed because of the recent federal income tax changes.
“We’d better be very careful,” he said, especially if the numbers suggest a big increase in revenues.
Legislative leaders were told early on that the $1.5 trillion in federal income tax cuts approved by Congress just before Christmas would result in an additional $80 million in state income tax collections without legislative action.
Although that number could be cut as much as $55 million by giving Utah taxpayers the same 20 percent tax reduction in the federal plan for small businesses that file as individuals rather than corporations, there seems to be little interest.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, has said he sees no reason to pass along that specific tax cut because Utah residents and corporations already pay the same 5 percent rate. Instead, he said, that rate could be lowered slightly for all taxpayers.
Hughes said his goal is to come up with a plan that offers both, “after all is said and done, more money to education and a tax cut.”
“We’d like to see the income tax adjusted downward as a tax cut. But also there are some corporate income tax adjustments we could look at,” he said, as well as changes in property tax collections that could bring in more money for schools.
“Net-net, you would see a tax cut to Utahns. But you would also see some of the mechanisms for how we tax for education, where we would see more money,” Hughes said.
Lawmakers are feeling the pressure from the Our Schools Now ballot initiative backed by Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller and other prominent Utahns that would raise both income and sales taxes to collect another $700 million annually for education.
“We’re hoping that we’re showing a level of work and effort that maybe that initiative isn’t necessary,” the speaker said. “So I’d love to see those that are looking at the Our Schools Now tax increase see what we’re doing here at the state. Maybe we’re building confidence.”
Other tax bills under consideration this session include HB148, sponsored by Rep.Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, which would remove 1.75 percent tax on food and increase sales taxes on other purchases from 4.7 percent to 4.92 percent.
Quinn, who has called the food tax “a moral issue,” said he believes he has the votes to pass the bill in the House even though legislative leaders have already spoken out against what they see as reducing an already shrinking tax base.
This week's revenue projections will help firm up the budgets for public and higher education in Utah and reinvigorate lawmakers’ requests for other initiatives they want funded.
The Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, in its final recommendations, requested a 3 percent increase to the value of the weighted-pupil unit, which is the basic building block of education funding in Utah. That totals $93 million.
The subcommittee also recommended that the Legislature appropriate nearly $33.5 million to address enrollment growth and another $31 million toward equalizing local education funding.
In addition to state funding, school districts also rely on local property taxes. Revenues vary greatly depending on property values in the respective districts.
For instance, the same tax rate in the Salt Lake City School District yields far more than the Nebo School District, which is experiencing high growth because of affordable housing prices in the area.
SB145, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, would set aside $36 million from the state’s education fund to increase the statewide minimum funding level for school districts, adding dollars each year.
“Over time, every district can count themselves a winner under the Minimum School Program," Fillmore said in a recent committee hearing.
That $36 million figure is $5 million more than recommended by the appropriations subcommittee, but there are some indications that the revenue picture is positive.
For the state’s system of higher education, salary increases at Utah’s eight public colleges and universities rose as the top funding priority, followed by student growth and a push to improve the number of students completing their degrees.
Stevenson said there is ongoing discussion about growing use of tuition waivers by state colleges and universities.
Tuition waivers are a form of financial aid used to help students pay for college and boost enrollment. Some colleges and universities even call them scholarships.
According to legislative fiscal analysts, total tuition waived by state institutions rose from $81 million in fiscal year 2014 to $138.1 million in FY 2017 — a 70 percent increase over a three-year period. Some lawmakers want institutions to rein in their use.
“I think there’s a bill coming through that kind of restructures that,” Stevenson said.
There are 21 types of waivers approved by the Legislature for use by colleges and universities.
For example, Utah State University’s Alumni Legacy Nonresident Waiver forgives half of nonresident tuition for first-time undergraduate students from out of state whose parents or grandparent are USU alumni.
Overhauling the management of the Utah Transit Authority had been expected to be a contentious issue this session. But even UTA trustees have reluctantly backed the new structure proposed by the Legislature’s Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force.
The task force bill, SB136, calls for the 16-member, part-time board to be replaced by three full-time trustees who would run the transit agency. The new management team would be nominated by local governments and appointed by the governor. A nine-member advisory board would also be created.
The biggest issues that have surfaced with the bill are about funding, not governance. The bill, already approved by a Senate committee, would raise taxes and fees, including the cost of registering an electric or hybrid vehicle and the taxes charged on hotel rooms and rental cars.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, the sponsor of SB136 and co-chairman of the task force, said “stakeholders are diligently working on the funding provisions, which is the only area of disagreement left.”
Harper said that could mean changes in the size of the fee and tax increases, or even dropping some of those proposed in the bill.
Also in the bill is a state-imposed sales tax increase in 2022 for counties that haven't approved the full 1.05 percent local option tax, including in Salt Lake and Utah counties, where voters rejected the quarter-cent increase for transportation known as Proposition 1 in 2015.
Another high-profile transportation bill, SB71, sponsored by Niederhasuer, started as an effort to allow electronic monitoring to assess tolls on new and expanding roads, aimed at curbing traffic issues in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
But SB71 was amended on the Senate floor to expand tolling to all state roads, a move described as being more fair to the west side of the Salt Lake Valley and other fast-growing areas.
Tolling is seen as another source of revenue for transportation by Niederhauser, who has said the state has to find a way to make up a $600 million shortfall in gas tax revenues. His bill passed the Senate and has been advanced by the House Transportation Committee.
Many key issues impacting management of Utah’s air, land and water remain on the table as the second half of the 2018 Legislature kicks into high gear.
Lawmakers are grappling with more than $3 million in funding requests to put a chokehold on Utah’s continuing air pollution problem, including new money for additional local research and more staff for the Utah Division of Air Quality.
There are also funding dollars that lawmakers want directed for research into Utah Lake’s blue-green algae problem and additional dollars to help the Bureau of Land Management accelerate its roundup schedule of wild horse populations.
Lawmakers continue to pursue public management strategies for Utah and seem intent on complying with a request from Gov. Gary Herbert to let Utah State Parks exercise more flexibility over its revenue to put in capital improvements at places such as Antelope Island State Park.
Some subjects are naturally garnering more attention than others, including mitigation of diesel emissions at local railyards and a possible lawsuit from Utah against California’s fossil fuel tax imposed on coal.
The heavy lifting remains to be done with action that awaits these measures.
Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue