As the 62nd legislative session kicked off Monday, the Speaker of the House, Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper) and President of the Senate, Wayne Niederhauser (Republican – Sandy) presented a unified message of taking power back from the federal government as they addressed their respective bodies.
Sometimes defiant, sometimes hopeful, President Niederhauser set the tone by first asking the body what he felt the political mantra of “Make America Great Again” meant to him.
“Make America Great Again means rebalancing the power of the states…the federal government was never designed to handle [the many issues it currently does]. It is a top-down, one size fits all government,” adding that political more political decisions “need to take place in state houses and city halls, not Washington D.C.” and that he expects a “period of decentralization” at the hands of the new administration.
Speaker Hughes, ever the scrappy boxer from Pittsburgh, didn’t mince words when he discussed the ever pressing issue of homelessness in the state’s capitol city.
“With this speech, I am drawing a line in the sand…we must eradicate the criminal element [around the current homeless shelter],” Hughes told the body, noting that drug use and abuse runs rampant around the Rio Grande area that sits less than two miles away from the chamber. “Predatory wolves” in the form of organized crime syndicates are taking advantage of the “one stop shop” model of services the current homeless shelter provides according to Hughes who reiterated his support of diversified approach towards housing and rehabilitation Salt Lake City presented last month as part of its plan to address the situation.
However, Hughes did warn that the state was not interested in writing a “blank check” when it came to solving the issue – emphasizing collaboration and data-driven approaches to the problem.
Both men spoke of their plans to reconvene the Commission on Federalism based on a charge from Utah’s federal delegation to identify perceived grievances by the federal government towards the states. “I expect a laundry list,” Hughes quipped, while Niederhauser challenged the legislature, the legislative staff, division heads, and citizens to participate in the process.
Each leader also addressed the issue of public lands, but from very different angles.
Hughes started by first addressing the perennial issue of education funding – which is expected to only intensify as talks of a ballot initiative to raise the income tax by 7/8 of a percent circulate in the capitol halls. Hughes reminded the body that, thanks to the state’s policy to divert all income tax dollars towards education, “jobs are tethered to schools.” Because of this, Hughes emphasized the policy makes business, employment, and wage growth top priorities.
“If you look at the fiscal state of Utah, we have achieved those goals,” Hughes proclaimed.
However the ability for Utah to continue to grow is limited, Hughes feels, because of the federal ownership of lands. “Property taxes…are the engine that fuels education funds,” before bemoaning the fact that the federal government owns nearly 70 percent of all of the land in Utah and that these lands can not be sold to fuel long-term interest generating accounts that can pay for education in a “sustainable and growing” way.
Niederhauser, addressing the upper chamber, focused more on the fear of any president, Republican or Democrat, having the unilateral power to transfer lands from the state to the federal government as was seen in the recent designation of the Bear’s Ears monument, which he called an act that showed “unchecked power and [lacking in] process.”
“The Antiquities Act is legal,” Niederhauser stated, noting the specific piece of federal law used to make the designation, “but is it wise?”
Striking a slightly different tone at the end of his presentation, Niederhauser wished to remind the body of Utah’s suffragette past. “2020 marks the 150th anniversary of women voting in Utah…and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment passing.”
Though Niederhauser may not have known it as he was writing his speech, the nod complemented the Women’s March on the capitol – which took place later that day and drew an estimated 5,000+ to the grand rotunda before spilling out to the capitol steps.
Women, men, and children alike demanded to be heard over concerns about the president’s campaign statements regarding women and support of policies that could potentially reduce their rights. At times the cheers from the crowd grew to a cacophonous roar, drowning out the mundane afternoon activities of both bodies.