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Utah GOP leaders focus on COVID, water and tax cuts on their 1st day back to work

Republican Senate President Stuart Adams speaks on the floor of the Senate chamber on the first day of the Utah legislature, Jan. 18, 2022
Ivana Martinez
Republican Senate President Stuart Adams speaks on the floor of the Senate chamber on the first day of the Utah legislature, Jan. 18, 2022

The Utah Legislature reconvened Tuesday amid the largest surge of COVID-19 cases the state has seen and five days after Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he tested positive for the virus.

Adams took to the Senate lectern to give an opening day speech to a group of mostly maskless senators. A statement from Adams’ office Tuesday afternoon said his follow-up tests have had “mixed results” after Adams said in the morning he’d had negative test results Monday and Tuesday. Salt Lake County has a mask mandate in place, but Gov. Spencer Cox exempted state buildings from the requirement. Adams did not wear a mask as he spoke, going against CDC guidance that people who test positive should continue to wear a mask in public places until 10 days after their symptoms started.

In his speech, Adams attacked government health mandates and pushed for COVID-19 treatments, which the Utah Department of Health has said are in short supply.

“We need treatments like monoclonals and antiviral pills to be available,” Adams said. “We are seeing people who are vaccinated and boosted still get COVID. Though vaccines help and are vitally important, they are not the only solution. COVID-19 treatments should not be an afterthought, but should be a priority.”

Over the past month, unvaccinated Utahns are almost 15 times more likely to die from COVID-19 and 6.5 times more likely to be hospitalized, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Adams applauded the state’s pandemic response, saying they have balanced “saving lives, livelihoods and our kids' education while preserving personal liberties.”

He also urged unemployed Utahns to find jobs, despite the state’s low unemployment rate. It’s currently at 2.1% — half of the nation’s rate, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

“We've been given too many free federal dollars, which has allowed people to stay at home and not work,” Adams said. “If you are not working, and if you can, get a job. Go to work, go back to work. We need your help.”

Over in the House of Representatives, Speaker Brad Wilson didn’t wade into COVID-19 policy debates as directly and aggressively as Adams did. Wilson began his speech by painting a picture of Utah’s challenges, including “depleted hospital capacity across the state and exhausted health care workers” as well as “supply chain interruptions and … workforce shortages.”

Wilson did speak generally, however, about how the state should approach the role of government.

“The Utah Way is not … government overreach,” he said. “It is not a nanny state, and it surely is not high taxes or burdensome regulation that saps the energy of our industrious people.”

Wilson laid out five policy priorities for the legislative session: “education modernization, water, affordability, generational investments and maintaining the Utah Way.”

In terms of water, Wilson said they would focus on expanding secondary water metering and protecting the Great Salt Lake.

Policy proposals to make the state more affordable include “align[ing] local economic development incentives to stop subsidizing development that works against affordable housing costs.” Wilson also said the Legislature would try to make child care more affordable and cut taxes.

Wilson’s top priorities for “education modernization” were educational equity and the freedom for schools and teachers to try new ideas.

In order to maintain the Utah Way, Wilson suggested that the state make the outdoors more accessible and better align the future workforce with growing industries like technology.

Wilson focused on rural Utah when talking about “generational investments.” He implied the Inland Port Authority Board could be getting more representatives from off the Wasatch Front. The Inland Port is a planned distribution hub for the west side of Salt Lake City near the international airport, but the state plans to open “satellite ports” throughout Utah.

Wilson urged representatives not to be distracted by “what’s trending on Twitter” or “the outrage of the day” and instead focus on the state’s biggest issues.

“Now is the time to lead,” he said.

Corrected: January 18, 2022 at 4:20 PM MST
This story has been updated to reflect a clarification from the Senate President's office about his test status.
Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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