House Speaker Mike Schultz’s election to the top leadership post was by acclamation, but during Wednesday’s special session of the Utah House there were divisions over a resolution supporting Israel in its defense against Hamas.

Schultz, R-Hooper, was chosen by the House GOP caucus in a closed-door vote Tuesday night to fill the speakership vacancy left by Brad Wilson’s resignation to run for the U.S. Senate. He said he appreciated “the reverence shown by all sides” for the issue after the vote on the Israel resolution.

The resolution on Israel, HR901, sponsored by Rep. Jason Kyle, R-Huntsville, was approved 62-3 after 40 minutes of often emotional debate. Kyle accepted a number of changes, including adding Muslim Americans to the list of those who need to be protected as tensions rise.

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“I appreciate that this body understands that all lives matter,” said Kyle, who had also added language saying the House “mourns the tremendous loss of innocent civilian life,” in the battle that has raged since Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel from Gaza on Oct. 7.

His lengthy resolution detailed the “brutal, highly organized, and vicious attack” and expressed “steadfast and united support” for Israel while condemning “in the strongest terms the horrific and appalling acts of terrorism perpetrated by Hamas against Israel.”

There was a failed attempt to substitute “all Americans” for the list of those Utah law enforcement should protect from criminal acts and discrimination — Israeli Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, supporters of Israel, and others in the community.

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Riverton, said that would dilute the resolution.

“Right now, it is our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters who are feeling the impacts of this, especially in terms of maybe not feeling safe, maybe not feeling welcome,” Piierucci said.

For Minority Assistant Whip Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the resolution was still too divisive to support. Hollins was one of three Salt Lake City Democrats who voted against it, along with House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-Salt Lake City.

“I feel I am being asked to choose sides in this and I cannot,” Hollins said, stressing repeatedly that her vote against the resolution was not because she doesn’t support the Jewish community.

“I truly support them and what they’re going through. Trust me, as a Black woman in this state, I understand it. I have been there. I have been on that other side of receiving that hate before,” she said.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, invoked Hitler, saying the Nazi leader preferred antisemitism made up of “small things that eventually add up to genocide,” citing as an example calling Israel’s defense a war crime.

“We try to make it a both sides thing. This isn’t a both sides thing. It was initiated with brutal, inhumane actions, murdering civilians,” Brammer said. Any concerns about Israel’s response, he said, should be directed at Hamas.

‘Utah has something special,’ new speaker says

Schultz, who had served as majority leader, presided over the session that was limited only to the House after being sworn in by Wilson. Wilson’s replacement in House District 15, Ariel Defay, was also sworn in Wednesday.

In his speech to the House, Schultz said he felt the same combination of fear and excitement that he did the first time he entered the Capitol as a newly elected lawmaker. As he was talking about the differences between Utah and Washington, D.C., he became emotional.

“It only took one round today to elect a new speaker,” Schultz said, “I believe with all my heart that Utah has something special. We cannot and will not allow let the D.C. model of divisiveness and dysfunction to enter into the chamber as it has in so many other states.”

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Schultz quoted Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, about the need to try to change the world rather than just complaining, telling House members, “that’s why we’re all here.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, talks to reporters in his office at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Wilson is resigning from the Utah Legislature to run for U.S. Senate. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Former speaker’s legacy includes strengthening legislative branch

Earlier Wednesday, Wilson told reporters he believes that the state will “just get better and better with amazing leadership put in place.” He said Schultz, who’d been a competitor of his in the private sector, has grown into a “great leader.”

Sitting in the speaker’s office a few hours before his resignation took effect at 5 p.m., Wilson listed the Legislature’s accomplishments during his 13 years in office, including increasing the power of the legislative branch.

An amendment to the Utah Constitution sponsored by Wilson allows lawmakers to call themselves into a special session. Before, only the state’s governor could bring the Legislature back between the annual 45-day sessions.

“It’s so important the legislative branch is a strong branch of government,” he said. “That’s exactly what’s happening in Washington, D.C., right now. Lawmakers have ceded so much authority to the executive branch there.”

But Utah doesn’t have that problem, Wilson said, citing as an example the first-ever special session called by lawmakers to “restrain the executive branch’s ability around emergency orders” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Still, he said he never wants to see Utah move to a full-time Legislature.

“You’re not going to find anyone that’s a bigger advocate for a part-time Legislature than me. It is the secret sauce, in my opinion, of lawmaking up here,” Wilson said. “We need to protect that, for sure.”

There is still more work ahead for lawmakers on other issues he highlighted, such as protecting the Great Salt Lake. Wilson said the state’s efforts on water policy are only a few years in to what will likely take a decade.

“In some ways, the low-hanging fruit has been picked and it’s going to get harder,” he warned, adding that the good news is there’s “a high degree of commitment” among lawmakers.

And even though the state saw a shortfall in projected income tax revenues in the budget year that ended June 30 as the economy shifts from boom to balance with the end of federal COVID-19 funds, Wilson said he hopes lawmakers keep pressing on tax cuts.

Outgoing House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, laughs after having a fan boat named after him at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Wilson is resigning from the Utah Legislature to run for U.S. Senate. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News