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SALT LAKE CITY — New House Speaker Greg Hughes urged lawmakers on the opening day of the Utah Legislature to engage in the "big, hard fights" needed to take on tough issues, including boosting gas tax revenues this session.
Hughes, R-Draper, took the oath of office Monday with the husband and daughters of his predecessor, the late Becky Lockhart, by his side, and reminded representatives that "she wasn't a big fan of inaction."
The House passed a resolution honoring Lockhart, 46, who died at her home earlier this month after a brief battle with a fatal and extremely rare neurodegenerative brain disease known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or CJD.
House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said the first legislation to go before the House, HR3, was "simple but heartfelt." It was approved 74-0.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, became emotional while talking about how much Lockhart loved doing the people's work in the people's house, the state Capitol.
"I don't know anyone who appreciated this as much as Speaker Lockhart," he said in opening remarks to the Senate. "Her untimely passing reminds us of our mortality and the unpredictable nature of our lives."
Niederhauser said Lockhart's death caused him to reflect on the seats he and the other 28 senators hold. Although they refer to them as "my seat" or "my office," they really don't belong to them. Someone else will fill those seats in the future and might do a better job, he said.
"Sometimes we overestimate our contributions," Niederhauser said. "We are not the be all, end all."
The Senate president ticked off a list of issues — Medicaid, transportation, water, education, prison relocation, religious freedom and anti-discrimination — lawmakers will tackle this year.
"I don't recall being faced with so many big issues in one session," he said. "It will surely test our courage and wisdom, and our ability to set politics aside to do what is right for the long-term health, safety and prosperity of our state."
Niederhauser told senators to "buckle up" and go to work.
In his opening speech, Hughes called Lockhart "a strong example to us all" and said he is the "product of many strong-willed women," including the single mother who raised him in Pennsylvania with help from his aunts and grandmother.
Hughes referred to his longtime love of boxing, saying he's not afraid of a fight and likes "a good win."
Expected battles this session over issues including raising the gas tax, Medicaid expansion and moving the Utah State Prison, he said, are "potentially transformational fights" for the state.
The current 24.5 cents per gallon tax on gas, unchanged since 1997, "is broken, and it stopped working long ago. It is up to us to fix it," Hughes said, and not by taking what he called the "simplest approach of just raising the gas tax."
He said improving air quality also needs to be talked about, but the discussion should not pit the environment against the economy. He said natural gas from the Uintah Basin could be "an important component" to solving air pollution.
Hughes said the Legislature will be a "great partner" to those who want to be part of the solution, but those "who want to rattle sabers or obstruct what is possible" may end up being taught a lesson by lawmakers.
Unlike Lockhart, who had been seen as a possible challenger to GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and criticized him as an "inaction figure," Hughes said lawmakers look forward to working with the governor on his Healthy Utah alternative to Medicaid expansion.
"But this is not a simple yes or no issue," Hughes said, calling the decision over whether to accept nearly $300 million in federal funds available to help provide health care coverage to the poor one that must "stand the test of time."
Later, the new speaker stopped short of saying he is taking a new tone with Herbert. "Politics is addition," Hughes said, that requires legislation receive the support of a majority of House and Senate members as well as the governor to become law.
"I don't know how you get there by dividing, or parsing, or trying to huddle in small corners. I think you have to come together," Hughes said. "We're going to reach out. We're going to make sure those conduits of communications are open."
House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said after an "extremely frank" meeting last week between lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, he hopes the legislative and executive branch can come to an agreement on Medicaid expansion.
A longtime supporter of moving the prison from Draper to allow the prime Point of the Mountain real estate to be developed, Hughes said in his opening address that the process to find a new site has been "imperfect, but it is possible, and we will do it."
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who serves as Prison Relocation Commission co-chairman, said he agrees that it's not if but when the prison moves. None of the reasons for moving have changed since lawmakers debated the issue last year, he said.
Stevenson said he hopes lawmakers can settle on a new site by the end of the session, but others, including Hughes, have suggested that's not likely to happen as new potential locations are considered.
Building a state budget also will be a difficult issue, even with revenue growth and surplus funds totaling $638 million available to spend.
Leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature have asked each state agency to scour its budget for 2 percent in savings, an exercise that Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said yielded $70 million last year.
Hillyard doesn't expect to find that much this year, but it would help lawmakers better understand how state agencies use their money and help form a basis for planning a new budget.
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