Fellow representatives, it is truly an honor to stand before you today as Utah’s Speaker of the House. This is a responsibility I take very seriously and I’m humbled by the trust you all have shown in me.
I want to thank Congressman Rob Bishop for joining us today and let him know what a privilege it was to have him administer my oath of office.
I also need to take a few moments to thank some special people who are here with us – my friends and family, some of whom came all the way from Pittsburgh, my business partner Gary Nordhoff, my children – Sophie, Holden and Reagan, and of course my wife Krista. I wouldn’t be here without them.
Please join me in thanking the Lockhart family for their strength and for being here today to support us as we kick off the 2015 General Session of the 61st Legislature.
I view all of us in the House as a family; not majority and minority members, battling each other for control, but as brothers and sisters committed to making Utah a better place.
Although this is a very a difficult time for us, it is also a time when we must unite as a House family and through tough times become stronger. Speaker Lockhart, more than anybody, would tell us that we have a job to do and we need to move forward and get to work. As I recall, she wasn’t a big fan of inaction.
It’s been said, “Man does not control his own fate. The women in his life do that for him.” For me, this has always proven true.
Like Becky was a strong example to us all, I stand before you as the product of many strong-willed women; women who have played an important role in my life and without whom, I would be lost.
I was raised by a single mother, with help from my aunts and my Grandma Maxine – all strong women who prepared me for this world while teaching me the lessons of faith, hard work and strength of will.
My start in politics began when Pennsylvania National Committeewoman Elsie Hillman gave me the opportunity to work on the Bush-Quayle campaign of 1988; Enid Greene helped me get my foot in the door and introduced me to Utah politics; Becky Lockhart was important to this body, and for many of you in this chamber today, she’s the only Speaker you’ve known. I knew her long before entering the legislature. She and Stan were among the first to believe in me and were instrumental in the success of my initial House race. When I was first elected she mentored me and helped me navigate the processes and procedures – and she did her best to try and keep me in line.
Megan, who many of you know, has kept my legislative life on track these last eight years; and finally, the most important woman in my life, my wife Krista, who is the rock of our family. In our home, I am a spoke; she is the hub.
One thing I learned from the role models in my life is that you shouldn’t say something that you can’t back up. We have a duty to live up to the obligations of the office we hold, as well as the promises we have made to our constituents.
Members of the House have a fiduciary responsibility to recognize that the next economic downturn could be right around the corner. Few foresaw the financial crisis that led to the deepest recession in a generation and brought cities and states to the brink of insolvency.
Wisdom of previous legislatures, of which many here were a part, allowed our economy and this state to make one of the strongest and swiftest comebacks in the nation – the fruits of which we are currently enjoying. It would be foolish for us to abandon these prudent principles and not do our part to adequately prepare now for the future challenges this state will surely face.
In these First Day Ceremonies that begin our General Session, I believe we all arrive ready and able to make a difference, but if we aren’t careful this place can start reminding us of the movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character played by Bill Murray, relives the same day, Groundhog Day, over and over again. Do you recognize the legislative version of Groundhog Day?
For how many years have we talked about some of the same issues? For how many legislative sessions have we tinkered around the edges because the challenges seemed insurmountable in just 45 days?
How many times have we heard, “Let’s put this issue on the Master Study resolution and work on it during the interim…” only to see hard things put off for another season; left to wait for another year; punted off to a future legislature?
By design, it is hard to pass legislation. And by design, it is easier to defeat legislation. This keeps our process healthy. However, sometimes I wonder if we let ourselves get bogged down; intimidated by the process and by the weight of the lift that hard issues present.
Let us not subject ourselves to a Groundhog Day experience where we adjourn Sine Die and think, “I hope we get that big problem solved next time.” Not in this session; and not for the rest we serve together!
The reality is that the reform or transformational issues, which were easy to do, have already been done, while the transformational heavy lifting still remains. That’s our job. It’s time to dynamite those boulders in the middle of the field that we’ve been plowing around for years.
We are a part-time Legislature and as such, we’ve been fortunate to find among us such tremendous talent and knowledge that I refer to this House as the League of Extraordinary Legislators. The expertise and leadership in this chamber allow us to tackle the most urgent and complex issues that come before us.
We don’t need to parade doctors in lab coats, like props, in front of cameras when discussing healthcare policy. We already have physicians, healthcare administrators and insurance executives within our own ranks. Each of these individuals brings a varying perspective to the table as they help guide our policy decisions.
As a state, we’re currently dealing with a number of issues regarding state sovereignty and federal lands. Once again, we can count on our ranchers, resource developers and constitutional experts to inform our legislative deliberations.
The state’s economic development prospects are in good hands with our budget experts and economists as well as our bankers, real estate professionals, small business owners, home builders and engineers, just to name a few.
Hey, we even have members of the executive branch who realized that to have any real impact they needed to join us here in the House.
Our state is no stranger to positive headlines for our innovation and best practices. If there’s a ranking or top ten, identifying which states do things the right way, Utah is always at the top!
This recognition doesn’t come by accident. Our fiscal prudence is what has led us here. The Utah motto of “Industry,” emblazoned on our state flag, reminds us of the work ethic and productive fiber that runs through the people of this state and has made us who we are.
The bloated, dysfunctional Washington D.C. beltway could learn a lesson or two from this House. Here, we can’t fire up the printing press and spend money we don’t have. Here in Utah we balance our budgets!
This is not a partisan remark. I feel comfortable saying that I could take every member in this chamber, majority as well as minority party, and with absolute certainty know we could walk right in the doors of that U.S. Capitol building and find common ground and make real progress on behalf of those we represent.
And we can do the same thing this year in Utah with the challenging issues facing us in this session.
One of those transformational issues staring us in the face is Medicaid expansion.
I think I speak for this whole House in a bipartisan way when I say – We oppose an unhealthy Utah.
We want to help the person with hemophilia who can’t afford medication. We want to help the woman with breast cancer who has no options. We want to help the single father with diabetes who sees his health deteriorate because he can’t afford regular treatment.
But this is not a simple yes or no issue. Medicaid, as is, continues to take more and more of our state budget. The decision to expand must stand the test of time and the state must keep its commitments. It is with that understanding that the dramatic changes in the rules and the numbers bring us pause.
Our Legislative Task Force has been examining this issue and developing solutions for the past two years. Governor Herbert has diligently worked to seek waivers and exemptions to allow us to find solutions for all Utahns and we applaud him for his efforts.
We look forward to collaborating together on this issue to find common ground and ultimately develop a solution that best serves the interest of all citizens of our great state.
When it comes to transportation, our funding mechanism is broken and it stopped doing its job long ago. It is up to us to fix it. As one of the fastest growing states in the nation, expecting to double our population by 2040, we must take the lead now to plan for what the future will bring.
The structure of our gas tax is failing us in all areas of the state, rural as well as urban. The state gas tax is supposed to fund the upkeep of roads and the building of new infrastructure – but it doesn’t.
Additionally, we often find ourselves raiding transportation funds to pay for the needs of education during times of shortfall, while in years of surplus we appropriate money for roads that would otherwise fund education.
This legislative version of Groundhog Day simply does not work and it is our obligation to fix it now rather than kick this can down the road to a future legislature!
The duty of our office requires us to plan and prepare for the transportation needs of the future, yet the promises to our constituents requires us to guard their precious tax dollars and not accept the simplest approach of just raising the gas tax.
In this legislative session we will have the opportunity to reform the funding formula into something that actually makes sense and keeps pace with inflation. If we succeed, it will be truly transformational. And while I can’t guarantee an outcome, I can promise you we are ready for the challenge.
Similarly, counties, cities and transit are all confronting ever-increasing demands. They must come together with a unified plan to responsibly address their challenges so we can provide more tools for their toolbox. If they do, all ships will rise. We will help them get there.
We have the opportunity to create a multimodal transportation infrastructure that consists of well-planned highways, roads, transit and other alternatives including bikes and trails. This will better prepare us for the future and we will become the envy of other states.
It’s difficult to talk about transportation without also talking about clean air. This discussion should no longer pit the environment against businesses and our economy. We can incentivize jobs within our state, while cleaning the air and being good stewards of the environment. Natural gas from the Uintah Basin can be an important component of this solution.
Those who want to be part of the solution will learn the legislature can be a great partner. Those who want to rattle sabers or obstruct what is possible will also have lessons to learn.
In 2005, my friend Gov. Jon Huntsman asked if it made business sense to keep putting expensive Band-Aids on that old prison in Draper. Last year, after careful deliberation and years of economic study, we passed a resolution to relocate the state prison. Now comes the heavy lift.
Criminal Justice Reform is a critical component of the work we are engaged in. Utah’s prison population has grown by 18% since 2004 and nearly half of our inmates released from state prison return within three years. We can better prepare inmates for life upon release. New construction, using state-of-the-art design, will better accommodate modern rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism.
$1.8 billion in new economic activity, generating nearly $100 million in state and local taxes each year, will create an opportunity to finally address the needed reforms and redesign that are long overdue.
Finding the right location is hard, and the process has been imperfect; but it is possible and we will do it. The economics are indisputable. The needs for better programming and justice reforms are indisputable.
I am proud that we are engaged in such a difficult and vital cause. Doing nothing is not an option.
In most states, property tax is the engine that funds public education. Here in Utah, the federal government controls nearly 70% of our land, leaving us dependent on our state income tax. We know that a strong education system helps bolster our economy, while a strong economy helps bolster our education system.
This is why the debates to control our lands, strengthen our education system and stimulate our economy are not mutually exclusive concepts. They are each extremely important and must work hand in hand.
As legislators we need to continue our commitment to strengthen our education system, both traditional and nontraditional public education. For many years, Utah has ranked #1 in the nation in the time our House Members spend in public schools through the NCSL Legislators Back to School program. While the demands on our time seem to be increasing, we must redouble our efforts and spend more time with our kids and our educators. This will help us better understand the challenges and successes happening daily in our schools.
Finally, during this difficult time we should harness the passion Speaker Becky Lockhart had for Utah’s schoolchildren by embracing the innovation and individualized instruction that technology can deliver. It is time we bring our classrooms into the 21st century and better prepare our children for the jobs of the future.
Now is the time to take action, and get to work doing the difficult, but transformative, things that lie ahead.
Now is the time to prepare for our future by reforming our broken transportation formula.
Now is the time to push back against the federal government and insist that we control our lands, our healthcare and our schools.
And now is the time to ensure that our schoolchildren are given the best education possible.
We must work together to avoid another legislative version of Groundhog Day. There is no better time than now for us to tackle the difficult but transformational issues that will ensure our state is destined for greatness for the many generations to come.
Now, you might have heard that I like to fight. It might be more accurate to say that I’m not afraid of a good fight. What do I like? I like a good win.
But I’m not afraid of these big, hard fights because they truly are good fights. They are important fights. They are potentially transformational fights.
It is our duty and obligation to try. It is our promise to do it carefully. And it is our privilege to serve.
I look forward to working with you. I look forward to working for you.
God bless America and God bless the greatest state in the union!