The 2023 session of the Utah Legislature is off to a busy start. The state’s three top leaders — Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President Stuart Adams, and House Speaker Brad Wilson — set the themes for the 45-day sprint with speeches. We take a look at their substance and effectiveness. 

The speeches outlined policy objectives for the session, but differed in tone and style. Did the three leaders boost public support for their priorities?

Pignanelli: “The task of the leader is to get people from where they are to where they have not been.” — Henry Kissinger 

Right and left wing activists, some media commentators, and other observers are criticizing the presentations of the state leaders in the first week of the session. But these critiques, usually lazy or rhetorical, miss an important dynamic. All our leading state officials, including Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, were engaged in confronting the most challenging issues in the last decade. The list comprises such controversies as tax reform (twice), a pandemic, severe drought, dwindling Great Salt Lake and unprecedented growth. Therefore, regardless of the details in the oratories, state leaders possess the benefit of experience in numerous political battles. This expertise is demonstrated daily in this legislative session through terms of pace and early priorities.

The three speeches were dramatically different in terms of style and presentation. The governor spoke to Utah’s youth, the House speaker provided heartwarming stories to compel his flock towards greater heights and the Senate president reminded the entire state of our greatness, with the vision for future growth. They all established markers for tax reform, restructuring water usage and providing economic and housing opportunities.

Legislative leaders were clear that education is to be restructured. While expressing support for teachers, the governor was less detailed on this topic but left room for maneuverability

Our state officials implied a common theme — they will utilize battle tested experience, personal background and vision to implement substantiative changes. They are not sitting on their laurels.

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Webb: As one who has written hundreds of speeches, I honestly thought all three speeches were very good. Cox’s speech was short (only 22 minutes), very personable and full of relatable anecdotes and metaphors. He asked legislators to withhold applause until he finished, rather than seek as many applause lines as possible. Cox was very effective speaking to young people, recognizing legislators’ children and grandchildren, by name, as beneficiaries of his legislative recommendations and highlighting their legislator parents and grandparents for carrying important legislation.

Wilson used personal stories to make his points and described dilemmas and successes of real people to illustrate policy challenges. He capably outlined the big issues facing the state and steps the Legislature will take to resolve them.

Adams’ speech was a little more policy focused, but he was also personable, praising former Sen. Karen Mayne, a Democrat; thanking the Senate staff for their hard work; and acknowledging spouses of senators for their support. He also provided a short history lesson, relating part of the inspirational life of James Madison and his contributions as a “citizen legislator,” encouraging senators to serve “with that same vision.”

Will Cox play a major role in the budget and key legislation approved in the session, or be more of a bystander?

Pignanelli: Although the governor’s budget presentation articulated major differences from legislative priorities, there is an obvious interaction between the two branches on the final budget product. This is a critical time for the state especially for water resources, housing, maintaining economic viability and planning for growth. Therefore, usual differences are likely to be deferred to achieve the important objectives. Harmony is predicted.

Webb: The governor enjoys the spotlight most of the year, but the 45-day session is the Legislature’s show. The governor is wise to stay somewhat behind-the-scenes and let session dynamics play out. As a former legislator himself and veteran executive branch leader, Cox knows where the pressure points are and how he can have the most influence. He knows how and when to wield the veto threat. It would be a bad mistake to attempt to upstage the Legislature on every issue at every opportunity.

The tension and interplay between the two branches of government are healthy — just what the Founders intended. The result is better government and better policy. Remember, the Legislature’s and the governor’s priorities aren’t all that different to begin with. 

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How much influence will the far right of the Republican Party have in the session?

Pignanelli: Cox, in a recent presentation to the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, urged citizens to reach out to legislators, participate in meetings and otherwise be engaged in the process. Otherwise, as he noted, a small sliver will significantly impact policy deliberations. His analysis is irrefutable.

Webb: The Utah Legislature, by any fair measure, is very conservative, but responsibly so. Still, some right-wing legislators and citizens say legislative leadership is too liberal. That sort of criticism of a very conservative Legislature puts the radical right on the extreme fringes of society where they are best ignored.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semi-retired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.