Last week, the Utah 2023 general session of the Utah State Legislature adjourned sine die, more than two hours before the midnight deadline. This rare conclusion exemplifies a unique result of 45 days. We offer our insight.

Many veteran observers claim the recent session was historic and unprecedented for the breadth of issues deliberated and for legislation enacted. Is this just hyperbole or did lawmakers accomplish much — or too much — depending on perspective?

Pignanelli: “The 2023 session was the most consequential in Utah history. The list of accomplishments is long, impressive, and will impact the state for many years.” — Chris Bleak, former chief of staff to two House Speakers

A reference to that citadel of American culture — “The Godfather” — best describes this legislative session wherein lawmakers “settled all family business.” State officials possessed a personal interest in resolving multiple issues plaguing them for years. This emotional component drove so much legislation that citizens, regardless of partisan affiliation, will find something to like and disdain.

The spectrum of public policies reviewed in 45 days was astounding, including major increases to public education while funding scholarships, providing voters an opportunity to remove the constitutional earmark for income tax, massive funding for water conservation, tax cuts, refining abortion restrictions, prohibiting transgender surgeries, infusion of new money for affordable housing and homelessness initiatives, streamlining construction for new homes, establishing a Great Salt Lake Commission, developing domestic violence database and approving a new state flag. The anger towards social media impact on youth fostered two bills, with encouragement from Governor  Spencer Cox .

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In the past, lawmakers expressed frustration with left-wing behaviors percolating in the federal government or other arenas with resolutions. But not this legislature. There was a flurry of bills to thwart the use of aggressive environmental, social and governance standards instead of usual business practices in finance, insurance and other activities.

The session catalog seems endless. Legislative leadership was blessed with a budget surplus, and the experience to focus throughout the entire session — not just the final week — to achieve so much. Therefore, lawmakers were able to settle their “family business.”

Webb: Lawmakers passed a lot of important legislation, but the real history was made with the state’s record $28 billion budget. It was remarkable and historic because the lawmakers had so much money to spend. To badly bungle a quote by Winston Churchill: “Never has so much been given to so many by so few.”

It is almost unbelievable that lawmakers were able to enact historic tax cuts, spend historic amounts on water conservation and development, historic amounts on education, and exceptional amounts on transportation and infrastructure. Usually, such a spending blowout would mean racking up deep debt, leaving future generations to pay for it. But, no, lawmakers actually reduced state debt significantly and left fat rainy day funds, leaving the state better-positioned than ever for the future.

It is a tribute to Utah’s amazing economy generating copious state tax revenue, and abundant federal money (generating copious federal debt). 

As I’ve written previously, I would have preferred lawmakers grant less generous tax cuts, instead saving more money for leaner times sure to come in future years. Utah taxes are already comparatively low. 

But I must admit that lawmakers and the governor did a nice job overall of allocating Utah’s bonanza, cornucopia, windfall, goldmine, bounty, jackpot, of tax revenue.

Some observers predicted that the new batch of conservative freshmen would tilt the Legislature even more to the political right. Did this happen?

Pignanelli: I was amused when several Republican lawmakers commented the “new batch” was very conservative. They forgot a similar moniker was pinned to them years ago. The 2020 elections fostered these newcomers, as Utah was one of the few states that experienced a red wave in local contests. Despite the right tilt, most of the major legislative items originated from experienced lawmakers.

Webb: Utah’s Legislature is very conservative, but it’s mostly a responsible conservatism that doesn’t often veer off into right-wing craziness — although it sometimes comes close. Thus, while plenty of ultra-conservative bills were introduced, not many made it through the entire legislative gauntlet. 

And, as I’ve said many times, with 104 independent-minded lawmakers all trying to enact their priorities, you can’t judge a legislature by bills introduced, speeches made or even what survives a committee hearing. You only judge a legislature by what finally passes both houses and is signed by the governor. By that measure, Utah’s legislature was quite responsible. 

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Will future legislative sessions be as impactful as the 2023 version?

Pignanelli: The upcoming session commences simultaneously with a big election year which brings a host of different dynamics to deliberations and voting.

Webb: Perhaps I’m just a grumpy old worry wart, having seen a lot of rough times, but I’ll be surprised if we’re able to indulge in such an amazing economic feeding frenzy in future years. As a state, we definitely should not get used to this sort of funding buffet. Plenty of economic storm clouds loom on the horizon. 

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.