ST. GEORGE — Six state legislators representing portions of both Washington and Iron counties spoke to Dixie State University students and staff Thursday about the 2021 general session. The event was held as part of the university’s Institute of Politics and Public Affairs’ “Pizza and Politics” series.
Legislators spoke about what it was like to work in such an unprecedented legislative session, the unusually high amounts of funding allocated to higher education and public education and where they stand on some issues such as the Dixie State University name change process bill. Vince Brown, the institute’s director, facilitated the discussion. In a press release from the university, Brown said every legislative session is interesting, but he said the 2021 Legislature was “of particular importance to Dixie State University and our Southern Utah community.”
“I am thrilled that our legislative representatives have agreed to speak with our students, faculty, staff and community to explain the legislative work they did this last session,” Brown said in the release. “It shows that they care about answering the concerns and addressing the priorities of the voters of Southern Utah.”
All six legislators in attendance — Reps. Brad Last, Walt Brooks, Lowry Snow and Travis Seegmiller, as well as Sens. Evan Vickers and Don Ipson — agreed that the past legislative session was unlike any they have seen before. Despite the uncertainties of the pandemic, Brooks said that this session was unique because due to the use of technologies like Zoom, more community members from across the state could participate and view the debates.
“This year I got to talk to more people than I ever have, and the reason was because Zoom has become more commonplace,” he said during the discussion, adding that they “love to hear” people’s input.
“That’s what we’re there for, to represent our community the best we can. So it was really nice to have that type of tool available to us.”
Vickers, who focuses primarily on budget issues, said that the state gave more funding to higher education this year than they ever have before. While other states across the country were struggling to find room in their budgets for education, Vickers said that Utah was able to accomplish several things this year.
“We were able to fund public education at a historic high,” he said. “Who would’ve thought that we would’ve been able to do that? The only reason we were able to do that was because Utah has been so successful in having the forethought to go in and do that type of planning.”
Snow added that the state was able to make education accessible to Utahns over the age of 26 with the Adult Learners Grant Program, which Snow sponsored. The bill will make it possible for people living in rural areas or who need to stay home to care for their families to take online courses and earn a degree. About 370,000 Utahns fall into that category, Snow said.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise to any of you here that our state spends millions of dollars on educating young people after high school,” he said, “but we have a very large population in our state who are over the age of 26 who have some post-high school education but never finished a degree.”
Brown asked the legislators to talk about where they stood on the Dixie State University name change process issue and how they balanced representing many people with different opinions about such a heated topic. Seegmiller said that he kept an Excel spreadsheet of the thousands of people who contacted him about the issue and kept track of how they all felt.
“I need to talk to and meet with as many hundreds – and even if possible thousands – of people to fully get an understanding of where they’re coming from,” he said. “I just take my own core values, the values I was elected to represent the people with, and then I mesh those with the core values that I’m hearing from the vast majority of people that I represent, and then I formulate that into my policy stance.”
Seegmiller said this is why he was one of the legislators who supported slowing down the process.
Last added that he supported the name change because he felt it was time to have the conversation as the university continues to grow and become a polytechnic institution. It was important to the university to have a name that reflects their mission and growth, he said, and that was why the suggestion of the name change came up.
“We have a university with 30,000 students coming from all over the country – all over the world – and going all over the world when they leave here,” Last said. “All of these other things descended on us and the conversation as a community turned a little bit intense, I guess, or negative.”
Last said this was a “sad thing” to him as someone who is not only a representative of Southern Utah but also the state as a whole, as well as someone who works and has lived pretty much his whole life in Washington County.
“I think this is a conversation that we need to have,” he said.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.