CEDAR CITY — A trio of state legislators addressed the Iron County Republican Women’s luncheon Wednesday afternoon in Cedar City.
Sen. Evan Vickers, Rep. Brad Last and Rep. Rex Shipp were all on hand at the Park Place Eatery to provide a recap of the recently completed Utah Legislature session and answer questions from the audience. Vickers and Last represent portions of both Iron and Washington counties, while Shipp strictly represents Iron County.
A fourth state legislator, Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, was also in attendance but didn’t speak at the meeting, instead deferring to his colleagues who represent Iron County or portions thereof.
Shipp started off by sharing a slide presentation that included basic information on how a bill becomes a law, followed by pie charts showing breakdowns of Utah’s record-breaking $23.5 billion budget in terms of revenues and expenditures.
Shipp, a relative newcomer who first took office in 2019, referred to his Southern Utah legislative colleagues Ipson, Vickers and Last as “heavy hitters.”
“Don, Evan and Brad all sit on the executive appropriations committee, so they’re the ones that are deciding where the money goes,” Shipp said.
A few of the recently approved state budget’s highlights, as outlined by Shipp, were as follows:
- $100 million in tax cuts.
- A $500 million increase in public education funding.
- Increases in higher education budget, including $200 million in new buildings and land purchases.
- $50 million toward affordable housing and homelessness.
- $1.1 billion for roads and transportation.
- More than $110 million to improve and expand outdoor recreation throughout the state. Additionally, two new state parks were created: Lost Creek State Park in Morgan County and Utahraptor State Park near Moab.
In the bigger picture, Shipp noted that of the 497 bills introduced in the House this year, 326 made it over to the Senate, of which 307 ended up being sent to Gov. Spencer Cox to be signed into law. He specifically cited SB 195, which was sponsored by Vickers and designed to limit the governor’s powers in situations involving emergency executive orders.
Vickers and Last then spoke to the group for a few minutes each, after which they addressed several additional topics during a Q&A session.
All three mentioned how different the 45-day session was this year, with all of the COVID-19 restrictions in place.
Shipp said he missed seeing the busloads of schoolchildren making field trips to the Capitol.
“I think it’s great for our young kids to learn about the legislative process, so that’s one part that I missed,” he said, adding that COVID-19 protocols also precluded other outside visitors from attending.
“Typically we can have people come in on the floor of the House, and sit with us and be right involved in the process. And we weren’t able to do that.”
However, Vickers noted a silver lining was that the virtual sessions made it possible for even greater numbers of constituents to participate.
“One thing that I think was most rewarding for me was to see how many people attended meetings online,” Vickers said. “So, for example, I was involved with treasury committee meetings where we had bills that had a lot of interest. And we had 30 or 40 people testifying on those bills online. There was one meeting where 278 people attended the meeting. There’s no way in the world we can have 270 physically in the Capitol in our committee meetings. So, in some ways, we had a lot more public input than in the past.”
“It did open an avenue for people, for example, in Cedar City, if they wanted to meet with me, we could do it virtually,” Vickers added. “They didn’t have to drive up to the Capitol. So there were some positive things about that.”
Shipp echoed these sentiments.
“I think it’s going to be a real benefit, especially for rural Utah, where, if you want to testify on something, you don’t have to drive three or four hours to Salt Lake to do it,” he said. “You can just get on your computer and zoom in and away you go.”
“We’re set up now at the Capitol to do that,” he continued. “I think everybody likes that and I’m looking forward to that continuing.”
Although Last said this was his 19th year working at the Utah Legislature, it marked the first time his wife had been able to come up and join him at the session for more than a day or two.
“You just kind of go out of one life for seven weeks, and then try and step back into your life when you get back,” Last said. “We literally did not come home for seven weeks.”
Last also talked about how Utah handles its budget allocations differently than most states.
“Utah is one of the few states that actually separates our money,” he said. “We actually look at money that we think is going to be there every year and we consider that ongoing money. So we’ll use that on programs that are ongoing.”
Last said they don’t use “one-time money” for ongoing programs.
“In fact, we had $450 million this year that we weren’t sure was going to be ongoing,” he said. “So we moved it into one-time. And so, next year and the year after, if it appears that money’s going to stay, then we’ll move it back to ongoing so it can be used for those kinds of programs.”
Last said most state legislators “love having all their money together and they spend it.”
“Then if they don’t have it coming in the next year, then they wonder what went wrong.”
Vickers also cited Utah’s fiscal strength as he mentioned how the state has weathered the COVID-19 crisis over the past year.
“Our economy is strong,” he said. “We’ve come out of the pandemic very, very well.”
The legislators noted that they expect to be called into one or more special sessions later in the year in order to make further budgetary adjustments, particularly those involving COVID-19.
Following the luncheon, Iron County Republican Women president Becki Bronson thanked all those who attended, and expressed her appreciation to the lawmakers for their participation.
“It’s been a joy to get to meet together in person,” Bronson said as the meeting ended. “We haven’t been able to do that for quite some time.”
For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.
Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.
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