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Water and education funding tops Utah House Republicans’ wishlist

Columned government building with the words "State of Utah."
Caroline Ballard
As Utah lawmakers gear up for the 2023 legislative session, the House majority caucus highlighted their top policy priorities on Jan. 5 at Weber State University Davis campus.

The Utah House majority caucus gathered on Jan. 5 at the Weber State University Davis campus to highlight their agenda heading into a new legislative year. They vowed to safeguard natural resources, cut taxes and pour more money into education.

Utah’s ongoing water crisis tops their priority list for the 2023 general session.

“We must increase our water capacity, expand conservation efforts, prepare Utah for future water needs and enhance outreach efforts,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper to a group of reporters.

Members of the GOP say they are focused on saving the record-low Great Salt Lake and bringing more water to the second driest state in the nation. A new report from Brigham Young University indicated the Great Salt Lake could vanish in as little as five years.

Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, called the lake’s condition a “moving target” because precipitation levels are always changing. He said it's time for the legislature to put the $40 million Great Salt Lake trust created last legislative session to use.

“What we're looking at as a legislature is to facilitate the dollars that we've already appropriated last session to see them have meaningful impacts,” he said.

If more money is needed to save Great Salt Lake, Snider said “I know we’re willing to do so.”

The Legislature is also looking at “free-market” options to conserve water, especially in agriculture, which includes secondary water metering and incentives for farmers to cut back their usage.

A handful of water bills have already been published by lawmakers, like one that outlines what Utah needs to do during emergency water shortages.

Republicans also promised to slash taxes. Schultz said a survey of the entire House showed every member wanted to cut taxes. But where the tax reduction will come from is yet to be debated.

Schultz noted “all options are on the table,” but hinted Republicans are looking to reduce income tax. But it wouldn’t come without complications. Schultz said it’s the source of “the majority of the growth in the state’s budget.”

“That's very problematic and makes us really worried as policymakers to cut that,” he said.

Rep. Judy Weeks Rhoner, R-West Valley City, has published a bill to repeal the state’s sales tax on food, but Schultz did not signal that House leadership was on board.

The caucus noted education will continue to be a big topic of discussion this year. Gov. Spencer Cox recommended a hefty pay raise for teachers, however, Schultz said a deal involving “school choice” will most likely be needed in return.

When asked if vouchers would be part of that conversation, Schultz said “there are bills out there that address [vouchers],” and emphasized the need for students to have options outside of public education.

A school vouchers bill was introduced in the House last legislative session but overwhelmingly failed in a 22-52 vote.

Assistant Majority Whip Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, added “there are a lot of public school teachers that are supporting this movement,” to give students various learning opportunities outside of the status quo, including private and charter schools.  

“We care deeply about public education, but we also know there's a lot of interest in finding other ways to help support different kids learning,” said Majority Whip Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Salt Lake City.

They also said student safety and mental health are important this session.

House Republicans said transportation and infrastructure improvements are another priority. Gov. Cox set aside $25 million in his budget proposal to test a year-long pilot program to make public transportation free.

Schultz said the proposal will be a topic of discussion, but he “doesn’t see a lot of support for it.”

“Transit is already heavily subsidized in the state and [there are] very low fees to ride the bus. But I think that people need to continue to pay their fare,” he said.

The 2023 Legislative Session is 45 days long and begins Jan. 17, 2023.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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