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Ready, Set, #UTPOL: Utah Legislature Convenes With More Women, Big Surplus

The Utah Capitol.
Julia Ritchey
The Utah Legislature meets for its 63rd general session.

The Utah Legislature starts its 2019 annual session today, a 45-day mad dash of voting and lawmaking. State legislators have already introduced hundreds of bills while the governor is angling for tax cut. Here are some of major storylines to watch this session.

New Faces

With a new class of freshmen and new House and Senate leadership, the Utah legislative session will look a little different this year.

For one, there will be more women than have ever served before: 25 out of 104 lawmakers are female, or 24 percent. That still lags below the national average for state legislatures at 28 percent, but women are still celebrating.

“We need more perspectives,” said Rep. Suzanne Harrison, an incoming freshman Democrat from Sandy. “Whether that’s more women or people with different life backgrounds and life experiences — that all helps contribute to better policy.”

Although both chambers are still controlled by Republicans, Democrats picked up four seats last year, three in the House and one in the Senate.

In the House, Kaysville Republican Brad Wilson will take over as House Speaker while Salt Lake Democrat Brian King will remain minority leader.

In the Senate, Sen. Stuart Adams of Layton will take over from Wayne Niederhauser, who did not run for re-election. Democrats are remaking their leadership team with Sen. Karen Mayne of West Valley City taking the reins from Sen. Gene Davis.

Messaging Bills & Ballot Busters

Conservative lawmakers have introduced a number of controversial messaging bills aimed at curtailing abortion, transgender rights and voter-approved Medicaid expansion. These could be some of the most hotly contested proposals this year.

Motivated by a rightward shuffle on the Supreme Court, Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, and Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield are introducing two bills to eliminate certain abortion procedures. Both are likely to draw court challenges and constitutional questions, with legislative attorneys estimating up to $2 million in legal defense.

“Some fights are worth having,” said Gov. Gary Herbert at a press conference last week after being asked if he would sign either of the proposals.

Herbert, however, was less than supportive of a bill that would prohibit transgender individuals from changing their sex on a birth certificate. It’s a sign of shifting public opinion on LGBT issues in Utah, though that hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from proposing these kinds of bills anyway.  

Lastly, after voters approved three ballot initiatives last year, look to see lawmakers try to tweak the rules for future ballot initiatives and potentially revamp Medicaid expansion to add work requirements and cap enrollment.

Money, Money, Money

There’s also a $1.2-billion surplus to manage.

Gov. Gary Herbert will try to persuade lawmakers, who control the purse strings, to come up with a sales tax cut and $100 million for air quality initiatives.

If last year is any indication, lawmakers are likely to approve more than 500 bills this year. Never fear, though, because it all comes to an end on March 14 at midnight.

Catch up on all the latest news at the Capitol with our podcast 45 Days, hosted by Julia Ritchey and Nicole Nixon. You can find a new episode each week at

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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