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2023 Utah Legislature: Here’s how lawmakers spent their first day of lawmaking

Water, housing, teacher pay and taxes among big issues facing legislators

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Rep. Joseph Elison, R-Washington, and his wife Robbie wave to family members.

Rep. Joseph Elison, R-Washington, and his wife Robbie Elison wave to family from the House floor on the Utah Legislature’s first day of the 2023 session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah lawmakers kicked off the 2023 general session on Tuesday with promises to tackle big issues facing the state including water and housing affordability while also returning a significant chunk of taxpayer dollars back to Utahns.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told lawmakers the decisions they make during this year’s session will lay a strong foundation for decades to come.

“Coming into this session, it has become crystal clear to me that as a state ... we stand at one of those rare moments where our choices will ripple for generations,” Wilson said. “We have arrived at this point through a once-in-a-century confluence of events: being the fastest growing state in America; a worldwide pandemic; an historic drought; (and) an unprecedented budget surplus.”

Wilson highlighted House Republicans’ priorities, including “stewardship” of water, public lands and energy; “affordability as it relates to housing, taxes and preventing government overreach”; and investment in transportation and education.

“As we move Utah down the right path in these three areas, our state and all Utahns will benefit for many, many years to come,” Wilson said.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, also laid out Senate Republicans’ policy priorities for the upcoming session, including tax cuts, water use, education and the economy.

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House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, gives his speech during the opening day of the Utah Legislature’s 2023 session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Water

Even though it’s been a “wet winter so far,” Wilson said “one winter alone won’t wash away two dry decades.” He said the ongoing drought, management of state water supplies, increased resources for southern Utah and preservation of the Great Salt Lake are top priorities for the House GOP.

“Let’s build upon last year’s considerable policy success to encourage conservation and provide resources to help Utahns do their part to safeguard Utah’s water,” Wilson said.

Adams said there is still a long way to go in order to save the Great Salt Lake and improve drought conditions in the state.

“However, Utah has always ranked among the driest states in the nation,” he said. “Our climate is dry and has always been — our pioneer ancestors knew this, and it was among the first challenges they addressed.”

“We need to create, adopt and implement a solution for the ages,” Adams said. “We can, and we will fix our water problems. We may need to work with our neighbors as far north as Canada and as far south as Arizona.”

Legislative leaders have told the Deseret News to expect substantial investment in water infrastructure, particularly aqueducts in Washington County, as well as investment in helping farmers implement subsurface drip systems to help increase conservation.

For the Great Salt Lake, Wilson plans to personally sponsor a bill called “Utah Water Ways,” to establish a public-private partnership to educate people about water conservation.

“We need new innovative ways to conserve water,” Adams said. “As we move Utah down the right path in these three areas, our state and all Utahns will benefit for many, many years to come.”

Pressed for more specifics in a media availability after his speech, Adams told reporters desalinization strategies in California could benefit Utah if it helped increase water capacity in the West and enable “trading” water between states.

“This is not a Utah issue,” Adams said. “This is going to be a regional effect. We’re going to have to have all hands on deck.”

Housing affordability

Wilson said it has been “impossible to ignore the sharp increase” in Utah’s housing prices over the past several years, and he pointed to a Utah family that had been invited to join lawmakers on the House floor. Wilson said Ty and Allie Meyer and their 1-year-old son, Knox, “have felt firsthand the devastating impacts of rising costs and out-of-reach home ownership.”

“Rent increases forced Ty and Allie to move out of their house. For over a year, they have been looking without success for a new home of their own that fits a middle class budget,” Wilson said. “The Meyers want to live in Utah. They appreciate our values and they want their boys to grow up near their family. But when you add high gas prices and the inflated cost of groceries to Utah’s expensive housing and child care, you can see how a family doing everything you could ask of them view the American dream as something always just out of reach.”

Wilson told the Meyers they’re “not an isolated case,” with “thousands” across Utah facing the same challenges. “You should know the House of Representatives has your back.”

Wilson said the problem is centered on high interest rates, over-regulation and a housing shortage.

“Some of these problems we have no control over, but when it comes to over-regulation, there is something that can be done. Local governments are at the forefront of critical decisions that impact our housing supply,” Wilson said, adding “some are doing it very well.”

He highlighted initiatives in Ogden, Clearfield and South Jordan as good examples, “but our housing crisis is a statewide issue, and we need all local governments to follow the lead of these and other cities that recognize the problem and provide solutions — rather than hurdles — to those supplying houses for the people of Utah.”

This year, lawmakers are poised to consider a slew of policy changes to help loosen controls around certain housing developments and more strongly incentivize (or force) cities to include moderate housing in their plans.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, is sworn in at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 17, 2023.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, is sworn in by University of Utah President Taylor R. Randall at the opening of the 2023 legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Tax cuts

Another top priority for both House and Senate Republicans this year is providing what Wilson said will be “historic” tax cuts.

“Representatives, the best way to ensure Utahns can continue to call Utah home is to allow them to keep more of their hard-earned money in their pockets,” Wilson said.

Wilson noted Utah lawmakers have cut taxes by $325 million over the past five years, but “we’re just getting started.”

Adams said “2023 will be the year of the tax cut — again and again and again.” He blamed inflation on “out-of-control spending by the federal government,” adding that Utah’s economic outlook remains rosy compared to much of the nation.

“Good economies are not made in a session, but they can be destroyed in one. We will not let that happen,” he said.

The question of the session is what form these tax cuts will take, though Utah’s GOP lawmakers have a record of favoring an income tax reduction. However, that’s not the only type of tax reduction that they have their eye on.

Talks are also ongoing from last year’s session on whether to repeal the state’s portion of sales tax on food, as well as removing the constitutional earmark that reserves income tax dollars for public education.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has proposed a roughly $1 billion tax relief package, which would include $300 million in new, ongoing tax cuts, $574 million in one-time tax relief, and maintain the expiration of the basic property tax levy freeze that’s scheduled to expire this year.

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The 2023 Utah legislative session opens in the Senate chambers at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Teachers

Both Adams and Wilson have also said Republicans in both bodies will be prioritizing education funding, particularly teacher salaries, this session.

“Our schools are only as good as the teachers we entrust our children to each day. We have thousands of incredible educators but we cannot ignore the fact that 42% of Utah teachers leave the profession within their first five years, and rural districts feel the impact of teacher shortages even more,” Wilson said. “We can make a teaching career more desirable and allow good teachers to do what they do best — teach.”

Compensation is a “major reason so many teachers leave the profession,” Wilson said. “And we’re going to change that. This year, let’s give Utah teachers their largest pay raise in the history of our state — and let’s make sure that increase goes directly to their paychecks.”

While teacher salaries have increased by more than 5% from 2012, Adams said, teacher pay remains a critical issue.

“Even with all the funding for education, for several reasons, teachers’ salaries have not kept up,” Adams said. “This year for the second time in the history of the state we need to directly fund teacher salaries in addition to significantly increasing the WPU,” or Utah’s per-pupil spending.

Cox has recommended lawmakers give teachers a $6,000 annual pay raise, but that’s likely to resurrect the “school choice” voucher system debate.

Last year, the proposed Hope Scholarship, HB331, would have offered parents a means-tested scholarship that could be used for private school tuition, home-school pods and homeschooling. The bill failed in the House by one vote, and Cox said then he would veto it because teacher pay needed to improve first.

This year, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R- Herriman, and Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, are trying again with a new bill, HB215, to implement the Utah Fits All Scholarship Program, which would link a teacher salary increase with a “school choice” program that allows eligible parents to use state funds for private school, home schooling or other options.

“Representatives, I strongly believe that when it comes to education, one size does not fit all,” Wilson said. “Let’s provide all students and their parents — regardless of their ZIP code, wealth or abilities — the opportunity to learn in a way that makes sense for them and make sure Utah fits all.”

Adams also spoke in support of allowing parents to use tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send students to alternate public or private schools.

“We must provide the option for parents to use their tax dollars to select the best education for their child, whether it is charter, public, private or homeschool,” he said.

Adams told reporters the COVID-19 pandemic augmented many challenges for parents, especially those “that wanted control of their kids’ education.”

“I do believe it’s going to change,” he said. “I believe it passionately. I’ve heard it. I’ve heard it from parents with tears in their eyes, and I think they want the ability to take their dollars and be able to put them in a school where their kids can be educated. And they want that choice.”

Cullimore said the bill has been crafted with input from the governor’s office, so he’s expecting the bill to find more support this year.

“There’s been some dynamics that have changed that will make this more successful,” Cullimore said.

Senate Minority Whip Kathleen Reibe, who works as a teacher, told reporters she and other teachers are wary of seeing their pay negotiated at a state level rather than at the local district level. She said if scholarship money in other already established programs were to be used up, perhaps school choice could be “something we can explore further.

“But tying our pay to a state entity concerns teachers,” Reibe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, speaks during the opening day of the Utah Legislature’s 2023 session on Jan. 17, 2023.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, gives his speech during the opening day of the Utah Legislature’s 2023 session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Energy

The most fiery part of Wilson’s speech focused on criticizing President Joe Biden’s energy policies, particularly the kind that “forces production cuts of proven energy sources for Utahns while rushing to rely on renewable energy with complete disregard for reality.”

“The fact is, while showing real promise, wind, solar and the collection of renewable options are simply unable to produce enough energy to power Utah homes and businesses,” Wilson said.

The federal government’s latest rule on ozone transfer, Wilson said, “will force early closures of Utah power plants — putting reliable, affordable and dispatchable power at significant risk in the next few years.”

Wilson was vague on the details, but he pledged the Utah Legislature will “fight for a responsible energy policy that embraces efficiency and is based in reality.”

“Let’s stand in the way of the federal government’s egregious power grab and, at the same time, make moonshot investments in energy research and workforce development to prepare for Utah’s energy future,” Wilson said.

Adams also focused part of his speech on energy, saying Utah “can and will make the transition to renewables, but until we do, we need to keep producing oil in the basin and refining oil in North Salt Lake to drive gas prices down.”

“We can’t be beholden to foreign nations for such resources,” Adams said.