Editor's Note: This article is the first in a series interviewing Utah’s top political leaders from both sides of the aisle about how their work at the Legislature impacts the lives of young Utahns.
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s time for the state’s annual 45 days of intrigue, mayhem and late nights on Capitol Hill.
The 2020 Utah State Legislature will see hundreds of bills proposed about many topics. State lawmakers are largely drawn from older, more established generations, but the decisions they make during the session can affect young Utahns for years to come.
From 27-year-old state representatives to high school students walking out of class and into the streets, the next generations are finding ways to be heard. We sat down with Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, to talk about how young people shape politics in our state.
King has served in the state Legislature since 2009 and is now the House Minority Leader. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What impact have young Utahns made on local and state government in the past several years?
One of the things that people have always said is that it's the older generations that have had a disproportionate impact on the political process because they have a tendency to turn out (to vote) more.
So what we're trying to do is get those younger generations, you know, people between the ages of 18 and 45, to really be more actively involved. And I think you've seen that. I think that there's been more interest and commitment and involvement by that group in the last few years. And it's been a positive thing because there are just priorities that those individuals have that when you're older, you don't have.
For example, I think one of the things that we've heard a lot about is student tuition and student debt after tuition. So coming out of the Great Recession in 2009, we as a Legislature, I think, rightly or wrongly, allowed institutions of higher learning in the state of Utah to charge higher levels of tuition, higher than just the growth in inflation, in a way that I’m not at all sure was to their benefit.
By “their,” I mean the institutions of higher learning’s benefit, but it certainly was not to the benefit of the individuals who were attending colleges and universities across the state. So I think that's something that you have young people raising their voices about and complaining about.
I think that there are other economic issues that they're concerned about. You have both men and women and younger generations exhibiting greater sensitivity to the wage gap and to having good wages regardless of the gender wage gap, to making sure that their economic futures are as bright as they can be to bring in good jobs to the state of Utah.
I think there's a bigger concern on the part of younger voters and younger citizens in the state about environmental issues — clean air, clean water, making sure that public lands are protected. I think there's a greater concern on the part of many younger voters about gun violence. Protection, gun violence reduction, March For Our Lives kind of things, you know, incidents where you have kids feeling insecure and vulnerable in school, at the hands of people with guns and weapons.
It's almost a lifestyle choice that you see some of these individuals saying, "Look, I reject the whole idea that there ought to be some framework that's defined as success in the world as we've done in the past." It's interesting to see people talk more about the priority that Gen X and millennials put on having experiences as opposed to things. I think there's something to that. I think it's actually a very healthy perspective.
Most states in this country don't have anywhere near the kind of recreational opportunities that we have. We have all sorts of things that I think appeal to younger generations that quite honestly are impressive to me and inspiring to me in terms of policymaking and lawmaking and ... cause me and my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, too, to sort of step up and say, we need to not take for granted those things.
How would you pitch young Utahns on the idea that their involvement and participation is necessary and important?
I think some folks who are younger don't have the experience yet to realize the extent to which decisions that are made in far-off places by different generations have a direct impact on their lives. And it's easy to sort of think that what happens in Washington, D.C., or the Utah State Capitol, doesn't have an impact on what you're doing in Monticello or Richmond or Price or Goshen. But they really do have a huge impact.
Utah is one of the youngest states in the nation. What do today’s younger generations mean for the future of the Democratic Party in Utah?
Well, in some ways they’re our best hope for a change because I think it's pretty clear that once you reach a certain point in your life, you're less likely to change your political orientation — though I think it's also true that to some extent individuals as they age have a tendency to become a little more conservative socially and culturally and economically.
Another issue on the minds of young people: the cost of housing. Millennials may be having a hard time getting into their first home. In what way can the state lead out on that issue to make it better for them?
Well, there are a lot of ways.
And to the credit of many of my colleagues of the Legislature on both sides of the aisle, I think we've made some progress in those things. Sen. (Jake) Anderegg, for example, conservative Republican from down in Utah County, has done a lot of good work in focusing on this issue about affordable housing and trying to bring to bear some resources that I think will make a difference.
There's a ton that you can do.
It can be done on a local level, it can be done on a county level, it can be done at the state level, it can be done on a federal level. And in fact, it needs to be done on all those levels in a coordinated, integrated way that doesn't waste taxpayer money.
You can do that through tax incentives, through credits, you can do it through working carefully and closely with nonprofits who have good insight into the best way forward. You can do it by watching carefully what happens that works in other counties and cities and states across the country. And I think that we have people in this arena that do all those things, but we need to continue to do it as lawmakers up at the Legislature.
King has served in the Utah Legislature for more than 10 years. Learn about his current legislation, the committees he's on and more on his House of Representatives page.