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Day 1 is the easy part. Now Utah lawmakers will take on water, tax cuts and teacher pay

2023 Utah Legislature, Senate President Stuart Adams, Jan. 17, 2023
Briana Scroggins
Special to KUER
Utah Senate President J. Stuart Adams (R) spoke on the first day of the 2023 Utah legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 17, in Salt Lake City.

The Utah House and Senate opened the 2023 legislative session with GOP leadership outlining their priorities for the next seven weeks.

Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson both spoke at length about preserving Utah’s water resources, cutting taxes and increasing teacher salaries.

“Coming into this session, it has become crystal clear to me that as a state and by extension, you as elected representatives, stand at one of those rare, rare moments where our choices are going to ripple for generations,” Wilson told his colleagues in the House. “I cannot say it more clearly, and I do not think it's hyperbole. The decisions we make this session will define Utah's next decade and beyond.”

Adams echoed similar sentiments in the Senate chamber. He confidently said Utah “can and will” fix its ongoing water problems.

“This session, we will have the foresight to find lasting solutions to Utah’s and the West’s water crisis,” he said.

Adams added the state is full of water innovations like cloud seeding, drip systems and desalination to help preserve water in the nation’s second driest state.

2023 Utah Legislature, Speaker Brad Wilson, Jan. 17, 2023
Briana Scroggins
Special to KUER
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson (R) spoke on the first day of the 2023 Utah legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 17, in Salt Lake City.

For Democrats on the hill, there is some common ground.

I think that the priorities that the Speaker laid out today are all very important priorities,” said House Minority Whip Representative Jennifer Dailey-Provost. “The opportunities that we have going forward on figuring out the best ways to implement good policies — to work toward those opportunities — is where the interesting conversations will happen.”

Despite cutting over $325 million in taxes over the last five years, Wilson added that lawmakers are “just getting started” and to expect “historic” cuts this year.

In the Senate, Adams also called this session “the year of the tax cut” many times. He claimed the Legislature will be strategic on where the tax cuts will come from, but said they’re still figuring things out.

Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla said the Democratic caucus would like to see a “targeted approach” for families, like slashing the sales tax on food. Rep. Judy Weeks-Rohner has filed legislation that would abolish the tax entirely.

Along with bipartisan issues, legislative fights over the fate of Utah’s abortion law, transgender health care and public education are also on the horizon.

“I anticipate we'll see a number of bills dealing with access to reproductive rights and abortion in the state of Utah,” Dailey-Provost said. “This is a critical issue to me and many of my constituents. It's a very complicated, multifaceted issue. And at the end of the day, I hope we can just all step back and do everything that needs to happen to protect people who face an unwanted or a dangerous or life-threatening pregnancy.”

A bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Kennedy would prohibit transgender minors from undergoing gender-affirming surgery and hormone therapy treatment, like puberty blockers.

Kennedy, who is a family doctor by day, said his bill doesn’t impact transgender youth already prescribed such medications.

“We're preserving the capacity of those that have embarked on a relationship with their health care providers,” he said.

The legislation also adds regulations on what kind of hormone therapy doctors can prescribe.

2023 Utah Legislature, state capitol building in fog and snow, Jan. 17, 2023
Briana Scroggins
Special to KUER
Fog and winter weather obscured the state capitol as the first day of the 2023 Utah legislative session got underway on Tuesday, Jan. 17, in Salt Lake City.

Sen. Escamilla agrees that there needs to be regulation around such medication but has concerns about the impact the bill might have on an already vulnerable population.

“This a medical process is keeping many of our youth alive as they have the highest rate of suicide,” she said. “So we want to make sure that … we're not limiting the ability of our youth to keep themselves alive because this is a very important part of how they are working through that process.”

In the final hours of the session last year, the House passed a bill banning transgender girls from participating in school sports.

In addition to raising teacher salaries, legislative leaders are also looking to give parents a greater hand in education.

“Parents want choice,” Adams said. “They want more control over their childrens’ education … We must provide the option for parents to use their tax dollars to select the best education for their child, whether it is charter, public, private or homeschool.”

A bill to address both issues simultaneously has been filed in the House, but it could face some challenges. Utah’s largest teacher union, the Utah Education Association, opposes the bill, which would establish the “Utah Fits All Scholarship Program” in addition to a sizable salary increase. A school choice bill also failed in the legislature last year.

When it comes to teacher pay, Dailey-Provost wishes school vouchers were debated separately.

“Personally, I am very disheartened that it has been tied to a voucher bill,” she said. “It puts legislators who really want to go out of their way to support our education system in a very difficult position.”

The 2023 general session ends March 3.

Corrected: January 18, 2023 at 9:02 AM MST
An earlier version of this story misspelled Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost's surname.
Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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