Utah Senate President Stuart Adams On Education, Tax Cuts And Police Reform
Last year’s general session of the Utah Legislature ended right as the coronavirus pandemic was hitting. The 2021 session is starting next week, and things are still not back to normal.
KUER’s Emily Means spoke with Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, about what to expect this session.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Emily Means: Talk about some of your policy priorities for this session.
Stuart Adams: Education is always number one. When the session ended last year, the pandemic hit us. We chose to use a blended approach that protects lives, but also we had to protect livelihoods.
Because we used that blended approach, in the fall we were probably the only state in the nation that gave our education community a 2% increase. And in December, we met in the Executive Appropriations Committee, and voted to give a COVID-19 type of a stipend or a bonus to teachers and actually reinstate the 6% increase we did last session.
EM: You recently said it was time for the Salt Lake School District to get back to fully in-person schooling for K-12 students. But the strategy during the pandemic was more to let local school districts decide what works for them. Why push for them to reopen in person?
SA: I've heard from parents it's been difficult for them. And as we've seen, the number of kids that are actually failing — for some kids online works, but for some kids it hasn't.
I don't just represent the people in my district, but I think I represent the entire state as Senate president. And I'm so concerned about the kids. I know the teachers are, too. But now they're getting vaccinated, I think there needs to be a confidence level that they can go back into the classroom. We all love local control, but I think sometimes we need a nudge to try to do the right thing.
EM: Even though COVID-19 and its economic impacts are still big things on people's minds, there are other issues to address this session. The big tax reform package exploded last year at the beginning of the general session. How will the legislature revisit the tax code this year?
SA: I've said a couple of times that I believe the 2021 legislative session is the year of a tax cut.
We've heard from senior citizens that are struggling. I think we need to look at the validity of actually taxing Social Security — at least for those in certain income brackets.
We've heard from those that are retiring in the state that have served our country so well, and a lot of states do not tax military retirement.
We've heard from large families who actually were disadvantaged when the federal government did their federal tax reform and took away the dependent exemption.
And we know that a tax on productivity hurts our economy.
I think those are four areas that we ought to look at for a tax cut. Despite the pandemic, we've got a half a billion to a billion dollars, depending how you look at it, with ongoing money. We funded education. We've taken care of the state's needs. It's probably time to look at doing a tax cut.
EM: Is a tax cut the best way to help people? How much money would people get back in their paychecks? Would that outweigh any sort of benefit someone would get from, for example, more funding into social service programs?
SA: I think that will be the debate that we go through during this process. But if you're a senior citizen and you're paying tax on your Social Security, I think you're going to be focused on that tax cut.
EM: After this summer's protests against racial injustice, we've seen some police reform bills being proposed by lawmakers. Which ones you would support?
SA: We've actually taken what I'd call a holistic approach in the Senate, and we actually passed a chokehold bill during one of our interim sessions.
But as we looked at it, we decided we need to be methodical. We need to be thoughtful. We want the process to be inclusive. And we're doing that with the House and Senate, the executive branch. We're then trying to make sure we have the right stakeholders so that whatever decisions we make in that regard, we do it in a collaborative way that brings unity rather than disunity.
EM: It's definitely a very heated topic. But are there any specific proposals you think you would support?
SA: I'm going to let the process work. And then as we listen, we'll probably find the best way and the right thing to do.
EM: The legislature has a history of tension with the last governor, Gary Herbert. What do you think your relationship will be like with Gov. Spencer Cox?
SA: My guess is there'll be good days and bad days like there is with anyone. Right now, I'm impressed with the collaborative effort he's made. We've been talking quite a bit. I really respect and appreciate that.
I think it's really important, as we go through the process, that we follow the outline of our founding fathers. The legislature sets the laws and we actually set policy, and the executive branch fulfills those policies. I do know that Gov. Cox wants to do the right thing and so do we. As we go through the process, there may be some things we disagree on, but I'm confident we'll be able to work them out.
I think the future of Utah is unbelievably bright. Our economy is as strong as any state in the nation coming out of this pandemic. Vaccines are being disseminated. Things are looking up for the state of Utah.