Well, the Utah Legislature got going Monday morning with what must be honestly called the longest speech by a House speaker in modern history.
But that’s OK.
The first day of the 45-day general sessions doesn’t see a lot of action, anyway.
Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, talked for…well…who was counting the minutes.
In the end, Hughes, who stood during the address, said he would often be standing during the next seven-and-a-half weeks at the podium.
In fact, his big, comfy chair had been removed. In its place is a stool, perhaps to accommodate his bottom if his legs get too tired.
But Hughes, a former boxer who remains in shape, said lawmakers had to take care of themselves – and each other – in the taxing time to come, both physically, mentally and spiritually.
“Take the stairs” instead of elevators, said Hughes, except if you break out in a sweat like one lawmaker did walking up three floors with Hughes recently.
It’s rare that speakers have talked about the LAST session in an opening address. But Hughes did at length, praising the work of the 2015 Legislature (his first as the speaker).
So much was accomplished; Hughes said, some may wonder what is left to do in the 2016 Legislature.
But there is work ahead, he pointed out.
Hughes invited members of the State Board of Education and the Canyon School District School Board to attend Monday, and they did.
There needs to be a collaboration between the Legislature and the state and local boards, said Hughes.
The Legislature “can’t be a super school board,” said Hughes.
But neither should lawmakers just bloc-grant funds to locals, either (as one House member proposes in a pilot program).
The 2015 Legislature gave more money to public education than any time in the last decade, and more will be done this year, as well, said Hughes.
A new technology funding for schools will be discussed this year; he said, and he hopes it will pass.
As a suburbanite, Hughes said he didn’t know as much about Utah public lands as he should have – but learned a lot in his first year as speaker.
Those who say Utah shouldn’t take control of federal lands in Utah need to learn more and listen more.
A good quality of life, a healthy economy and environment are not opposite of Utah managing those lands – but each is part of both.
The $14 million approved by the Legislature’s Stewardship of Public Lands Commission for a federal court fight is not “frivolous,” but critical to a fight the state must take on, and a fight the state can win said Hughes.
Water development and funding
“Now it is our turn” to take over from Utah pioneers and develop the next phases of water infrastructure, the speaker said.
Local water districts are coming together for the first time to provide a framework and funding. The Legislature must do its part, and starting in the 2016 Legislature.
The state’s future calls for nothing more.
“There is a false premise – that we can’t grow any more.”
But Utah can and will grow, must grow – all while water conservation being part of that.
Hughes’ goal – which must be the Legislature’s as well – is to make a serious attempt at “no more red days” in Utah.
It can be achieved, said Hughes, in the near future.
But there are many levers that must be pulled to get there.
“We have achieved more in the last five years” in cleaning up valley air “than we have in the previous 25.”
He wants to double the funding for the Bureau of Air Quality’s citizen outreach program – to tell Utahns how they can take individual and group action to better the air sometimes trapped in northern valleys, especially in the winter and summer times.
It’s an election year for all 75 House members. And politics will play its part.
Will there be anything done on Medicaid expansion?
Hughes didn’t mention it.
Will there be any tax cuts, considering the $780 million extra lawmakers had last year and the $620 million extra they have this year?
Hughes didn’t mention it, but has told UtahPolicy he doesn’t see one coming this session.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser (R-Sandy) sounded a clarion call for his colleagues to start planning for the future.
“The great public policy of the past has made our state what it is today,” said Niederhauser from the Senate dais, noting that lawmakers face the same sort of challenges.
“The word for our time is ‘infrastructure.’ We face a doubling of our population. What can we do now, so the same quality of life is available to those future generations? We must sacrifice and pay it forward.”
Niederhauser, noting that lawmakers made “the decision of a century” last year to raise gas taxes and move the prison. This year he says the focus must be on education and water.
“These are not easy issues to address. Our nature is to postpone a decision until the moment of crisis, that it’s better to address these things tomorrow and not today. I hope we have the vision and courage to address these things now. Time can be our friend and time can be our enemy.”
Lawmakers start hearing bills in committees Tuesday and on the floor Tuesday morning.