The 2015 Utah Legislature got underway Monday morning, after a few remarks remembering the late House Speaker Becky Lockhart, who died just over a week ago, and speeches by the new House Speaker Greg Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser.
In his opening remarks, Hughes gave credit to the man he is today to the “many strong-willed women” in his life, from his single mother, to his aunts, to his grandmother, all who helped raise him.
“Without them, I would be lost.”
Hughes never knew his father – although he was named after him – and looked to women as role models as a child and young man.
He also praised former House Speaker Lockhart, who died a week ago Saturday of a rare brain disease, and whose memorial was held in the Capitol Rotunda just last Thursday.
The Lockhart family, husband Stan, and two of her daughters, were in the House Monday morning and stood on the dais as Hughes was sworn in as speaker.
Hughes was sworn in by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, (R-Utah), who is a former state House speaker. Hughes had planned to have Lockhart swear him in. She retired from office Dec. 31, about the same time she was diagnosed by the fast-moving disease.
While mourning her, now the House has to do its business, something Lockhart would expect and demand, said Hughes.
Making light of a criticism Lockhart made of GOP Gov. Gary Herbert just a year ago in her opening remarks, Hughes said of the late speaker: “As I recall, she wasn’t a big fan of inaction.”
And so, said Hughes, the big questions facing this Legislature over the next 45 days won’t be put aside for another year.
Like the now-famous movie Groundhog Day – in which the main character was forced to repeat the same day – day after day – until he became a better man, so the many in the Utah Legislature see the same issues year after year.
But in 2015 a number of those same-old issues will be addressed and settled, pledged Hughes.
There won’t be another Groundhog Day – “Not in this session; and not for the rest of us who serve together.”
Hughes then addressed a number of the issues specifically: Health care expansion (Herbert’s Healthy Utah); roads and mass transit; clean air, prison relocation; education; among others.
“I think I speak for this whole House in a bipartisan way when I say – We oppose an unhealthy Utah.”
But already the Legislature’s health care reform task for has opposed Healthy Utah. And House leaders want to cover 10,000 to 16,000 poorer Utahns instead of the upwards of 195,000 Herbert’s Healthy Utah would cover.
The state’s “broken transportation (tax) formula” must, and will, be addressed – although legislative conservatives vow it won’t be a tax increase.
“Now is the time to push back against the federal government and insist that we control our lands, our health care and our schools,” Hughes said, smiling at Rep. Ken Ivory’s enthusiastic applause.
“Now is the time to ensure that our schoolchildren are given the best education possible.”
Although Hughes and other GOP leaders say there will NOT be a general tax hike for schools, and it is still unclear if the GOP-controlled Legislature will give Herbert the $500 million increase this year in public education funding.
Hughes’ causal, and humorous nature, came out in his speech – he adlibbed quips and took long swigs from a water bottle during his address.
He didn’t use a teleprompter, but read from a paper copy speech.
Hughes is a former boxer, and in a recent UtahPolicy video he showed a picture of a young Greg Hughes with several black eyes.
“You might have heard that I like to fight. It might be more accurate to say that I’m not afraid of a good fight. What do I like? I like a good win.
“I’m not afraid of these big, hard fights (coming over the next 45 days), because they are truly good fights. They are important fights. They are potentially transformative fights.
“It’s our duty and obligation to try. It’s our promise to do it carefully.”
On the Senate side, the mood was a little more lighthearted. Former Senate President John Valentine opened the proceedings and delivered the oath of office for new and re-elected Senators until President Wayne Niederhauser (R-Sandy) was officially re-elected to his seat.
In his opening remarks, Niederhauser highlighted the three new members of the body, showing embarassing photos from their past and tracing their path to the statehouse. He also surprised the body and gallery by singing a fight song to honor new Senator Jani Iwamoto (D-Salt Lake City) and her time at Girl's State in the 1970's.
Niederhauser also spoke on the history of the Utah Capitol, noting that the old statehouse in Filmore only held one legislative session before the body was moved to Salt Lake City.
Niederhauser went off-script during his remarks about former House Speaker Becky Lockhart. Visibly choking up, Niederhauser says her untimely passing "reminds us of our mortality and unpredictable nature of our lives."
"I often call this office 'my' office and this seat 'my seat'," he said. "Really, it is not. We are here temporarily. Someone else will fill these seats in the future, maybe even better than us. Sometimes we overestimate our contributions."
Niederhauser then urged his colleagues to get ready for a tough 45-days ahead.
"I don't recall being faced with so many big issues in one session. We have to deal with Medicaid expansion, moving the prison and education funding to name a few. I hope we can set politics aside and do what's right. Buckle up, let's go to work."