2017 Opening Day Remarks
Speaker Hughes opening remarks.
47th Legislative session.
January 23rd 2017
Welcome to the start of this general session and to the sixty-seventh term of our legislature. We all sit here through a myriad of different occasions and decisions, but there’s something that’s common amongst every single one of us that sit here today – and that’s the choices that we have made to be here.
There’s a tapestry of our lives that have woven us together where we have decided to make hard decisions and to do hard things to represent the districts we’ve been sworn to represent and to serve.
It is this that bonds us together in a unique and rare and powerful way. These weren’t easy decisions, whimsical decisions or carefree decisions that allowed us to be public servants. They inherently require hard decisions.
Think about today. What is it in your life, the responsibilities that are expected of you that you’re sacrificing to be here right now?
Not everyone can do it. Not everyone is willing to do that. But all of us are and there’s something special about that. It is something that brings this chamber together, in a special way.
So on to hard choices.
What I want to talk about are the hard choices that we face. To get anything done, anything that is going to matter, it’s going to require hard choices. Think about this country. We only have this great nation that we live in because of the culmination of hard choices that people made. The state of Utah, that pioneer spirit, the hard choices that were made that allowed us to even be a state. The ideas and concepts that we engage in are not unique. They are ideas and concepts that we believe in and that we inherently had inside of ourselves that lead us here. This is a common thread of those in this country that have helped make this country great.
This body has done tremendous work. For those who have served before you know that we have moved the needle. We’ve done good things that we can be very proud of. But we also know that we’ve set of pace for ourselves and an expectation and there is much more work that we have to do. To those who are new to our chamber you came by the same path. Get ready. Because the work that we do in the house might not make you popular at times but I promise you this: you put your work in and you will be very proud of what you have to show for it, and what you have to report to those constituents that you represent.
So let’s just get into it. Right now let me talk about a very hard issue, inherently hard, there’s not an easy decision within this issue. Homelessness. This state, and I used the word state on purpose; this state has a homelessness crisis.
Our values, the culture of this community and of our state does not align, it doesn’t match with the carnage that’s going on in real time, right now.
We’ve started to tackle this. We began, through the leadership of this body, a homelessness initiative. We have our justice reform initiative that we have worked to try and drill down on the causes that leave people in such desperate condition and needing of help. We work with Medicaid, a traditional Medicaid bill that would leverage real dollars for behavioral health and those things that are critically needed. Again, this a multi-pronged attack. We’ve attacked this issue but here’s the tough part – this work has just begun. This is just the beginning of what it is that we have to do.
Now I want to be clear. One city can’t take on this issue, one county can take on this issue, and even the state by itself would not be able to take on this issue. This is going to take a collaborative effort. The State of Utah is not writing blank checks. We’re not sending out blank checks hoping that our partners are going to be able to make this work out for us. We are partners in this; we will have every one of those dollars accounted for and if our partners buckle under this political pressure, if the hard choices just become too hard, then we’ll just keep moving forward and we will go do that job and we will find those willing stakeholders because they are out there and together we will get this job done.
Now I am going to put a face to this issue. There’s a gentleman that I’ve met. His name is Brandon Kitchen. He committed a federal crime. He served twenty-one years in a federal penitentiary.
Brandon came to a strange state on his first day of freedom – the state of Utah – where he didn’t know anyone. In a random conversation he learned about a place called The Road Home. So after twenty-one years after having committed a crime in paying that time and doing the time, he finds himself in the Road Home on that first night. Brandon tells me that it was a palpable sense of despair, inside that room, people whose trajectory is in a place that they never imagined. People that are vulnerable, people that need help…and he could feel it.
The next morning he woke up and he met a gentleman who is a constituent and a friend of mine. He was then the Salt Lake City Deputy Police Chief. His name is Fred Ross and he was assigned to that area down there. He told Brandon, having just met him that morning, that they had a program and if he was serious, they’ll go help him find a job and they will help him with what he needs to be able to become gainfully employed. You see, Brandon didn’t want a handout. Brandon came out having been ready to take on his life and start over again but he needed some hope. That hope was provided to him and he began that job and then, within three weeks of gainful employment, was able to secure transition housing. From that transitional housing he was able to afford an apartment.
Now we fast-forward. Brandon Kitchen, he’s a family man, and Brandon is here with Heather and his twin boys, six-month boys here in the chamber with us. And I would like Brandon and Heather to please stand up and brag about those boys of yours. Could you please do that for me? Thank you.
You see that’s the face in the story of what we’re doing here.
That’s our cause. That cause is just and we’re not going to slow down. To the people that are in Brandon’s situation, we are there. We help. We serve because that’s what we do.
Now that’s the aspirational side of the story and that’s the part that I think that tugs at our heartstrings, as it rightly should. But now I’m going to talk about an insidious part of the homeless crisis that we have, one that doesn’t make me feel aspirational at all.
You need to know as colleagues, and I want the public to know, that there are predators amongst those in Utah who are the most vulnerable and the most needy. There are people, wolves I would call them, who look to expand dependency, who look to multiply the ranks of those in life’s worst situations. And they profit from it.
This drug dealing, this human trafficking, the crime that is going on right now in this state and our community happens in broad daylight. It goes on with very little consequence and I don’t think we know that or appreciate that to the degree that it’s happening and there’s a lot of reasons why. But those reasons are going to be addressed. Now when you hear me describe that I want you to know these aren’t dirtball drug dealers. They’re not petty thieves. Here’s what’s scary. This is a sophisticated crime enterprise. We have drug cartels that are in our community. You could be walking a city street and see a gentleman in a suit and assume that he’s a business person and, according to the top DEA agent in the state of Utah, many times that will be one of these sophisticated criminals, walking the streets with us. So this is not random and this is not happening by accident. This is a fully organized effort to grow and expand a market at the expense of people’s lives.
So the feeling I have right now when we start talking about this is not benevolence, it’s not aspirational, it’s anger. This makes me so angry that this is happening in our state. So I’m drawing a line in the sand with this speech and this session. That we are going to tackle that criminal element. That sophisticated criminal element. Our capital city, our largest county, the state of Utah, even with our combined efforts this problem is unfortunately is bigger than us. I have met with the top D.E.A. official of the state. I’ve gone back to Washington D.C. and I am working with the D.E.A., the Department of the Drug Enforcement Administration of the United States. I’m working with our federal delegation and we are going to bring additional federal resources with the D.E.A. and we are going to attack. We’re going to tackle this problem. They are going to be able to leverage these assets, these law enforcement assets. We have to do this together. We are going to eradicate this criminal element in the state of Utah.
You see, with the best of intentions, we believed that the economies of scale for our homeless population – if we get them in one place because we need to help them, if we could put all the services around them so that we could help them – that there would be an efficiency to that effort.
I’ve been down there. Many of you have been down there. The economies of scale unfortunately have become a boon for these wolves and these predators. It is a one-stop shop to go after and to hurt people in their most vulnerable state. The efforts that we’re engaged in are going to start to pull women and children away from what’s happening down there. With limited beds, with not a shelter but a resource center, with the emphasis that you have to get in and get out because people need these beds and they need a chance, we’re going to begin to move people in ways that Brandon was able to see success in his life and find self-reliance. We’re going to see it but it’s not going to be easy and you’ve seen in the papers already that there is angst and there is worry about the different changes that we’re looking to make. But we have to have the political will and we have to be committed to the hard choices to make this right and that’s what it’s going to require from every single one of us.
So it’s a tough issue.
I just started right out the gate and there’s a few more, let me tell you about another tough issue.
The Bears Ears Monument.
So I stood there in front of the San Juan County Building on Main Street in Monticello. It was a workday and the crowd was large. It was a diverse crowd of people who came to protest and to say that the encumbrance of this land and the suggestion that this community who had grown up in this area could not or would not be good stewards of the land was not only offensive to this community, it was emotional to them. Native Americans, the mom and pop owner of a store, just any part of a small town life and those people were rallying together. As a suburb guy, a suburbanite, who doesn’t live in rural Utah, if I hadn’t seen that and heard that I don’t know that I would have the conviction I have right now. This idea that by decree, thousands of miles away, you can somehow better manage or better take care of land that the people of the land and of that community wouldn’t do themselves is ridiculous.
One image, because you know pictures are worth a thousand words, the one image that I thought just put a bow on this about the disconnect that we’re seeing from those that wouldn’t come, or those that want to see this land through a federal designation of a monument versus the people of this community, is that when President Obama sent out the tweet and announced to the world that he was creating this national monument, the photo he used was of Arches National Park. If that doesn’t let you know that there’s a disconnect going on, I don’t know what will. That would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
I’ve talked to our attorney general’s office that monument designation is one of the most prescriptive and prohibitive monuments we have seen. It seeks to protect things like dead silence and natural habitat that’s not unique necessarily to that area, open skies, these are oversteps. Those are not the objects in an Antiquities Act that you’ve ever seen attempted to be protected and it is a great overstep. That’s why today I am calling for, and we will be pushing for, the new Trump Administration to rescind this national monument, entirely.
You know we’ve seen this before. We’ve seen this move of an outgoing president designating a monument. Utah has become the A.T.M. for political payback for special interest groups on your way out the door. It shouldn’t happen here. We have the obligation to inform our constituents and others. We want Utah to share with the rest of the country. So let me tell you that if you’re standing on a main street in a small town – if the federal government can impact the lives of these people in a small town on Main Street in our community it can happen anywhere and we need to be on guard for that and we need to be careful about that.
So let’s talk about an issue that we dive into every single year. That is probably our top priority. We send out our surveys and we know because our constituents tell us; one of the number one issues that they want us to drill down and is to do right by our school students our public education system.
There has been an outside baseball kind of a narrative going out amongst the press and the public about education funding. We all know that this is an issue that we take very seriously and that we tackle every single year and we try to make this right every single year. But given there is more attention, at least from those who cover us our friends in the media and those groups and interested stakeholders in the public, let’s talk about it for a minute.
In 2007 we had tax reform. We had a state income tax. I know that we all know this but our state income tax is dedicated education. So this state is uniquely tethered its economy. The jobs you have and the salary you earn is tethered with our ability to fund our public schools. In 2007 then Governor Huntsman proposed reforming our income tax system. He said we have a seven percent tax and we look at our western states and some have not a single dime or a single percentage in state income tax. Some don’t have any state income tax. Other states had a lower state income tax than we have, so the idea wasn’t to say how could we come up with a solution to take more money out of education. That was not the banner in which we pursued tax reform. The banner that we flew was we need to be competitive economically. We need to be one of those states that if in future year there’s ever a ranking, we would be ranked one of the best States to do business in, one of the nation’s strongest economies. These were the goals of what we would hope reforming our income tax and making a five percent flatter tax would bring.
Because if we want to see more jobs and we want to see people pay more income tax, we need more of you and we need to take in more money. The way you do that is you see corporations expand, you see corporations and businesses relocate to our state. That’s what we said we’d like to do in 2007. Let’s take some inventory right now.
How is job growth in the state of Utah? Are there any rankings out there that are putting Utah in the top tier in terms of its economic viability? How’s the unemployment rate compared to other states? I would argue that the reform that we put in place in 2007 has done the very things that we hoped we would see happen for the state of Utah and I would argue that it is that kind of competitiveness that allows us to fund education. We can draw all the numbers we want to budgets, but it’s taxpayers that pay taxes. It’s an economy that drives what we’re able to do with those finite dollars. I would argue, if you look at fiscal status of State of Utah, that we have achieved those goals.
Just ask the Governor’s Office of Economic Development or E.D.C.U., the Economic Development Corporation, the organizations who spend every single day looking to draw economic activity and businesses and jobs to our state, if someone tells us that you can raise the tax income tax is it not a big deal because we need more money? Let’s ask those that are out there trying to draw in this kind of economic activity. Can they lead their pitch to those they’re trying to recruit with we’re going to raise your taxes? Come to Utah because we’ve got a great bill that we’re looking at doing and we’re going to raise the income tax here in the state of Utah, come on in.
You’ve seen the kind of incentives that states use to try and drive business and economic activity in their states. They are looking for the lowering of taxes, they are looking for a tax the tax burden to be lightened and I worry, even under the best of intentions, where we would want to raise a tax. Those that look to bring this economic activity will not have as big or as great or grand of a story to tell if we take our income tax and simply raise it.
So then what? Do we not do anything? Do we give up? Well let me go back to the last issue about our lands.
If we as policymakers want to understand why those states that fund more dollars per child do it better than we do then let’s have a look at what their tax policy actually looks like. Property tax is a major engine for education across this country, more so than an income tax. Not every state, in fact I think few states, would look solely to an income tax to fund their schools. Now let’s go to one of those states that we envy and let’s look at their tax structure and we see that they have a property tax mechanism within their tax system that helps them provide those needed resources to their schools.
Now let’s take what we have, sixty eight percent of that land that would be un-taxable. Would any of those successful states, that are committing those dollars to those public schools, be able to take out sixty eight percent of that land that economic activity occurs on or that the property taxes derive from? Where would they be and what would their ability be to fund their schools? We need to think about that and we need to think about what we’re missing out on or what challenge we have in front of us and what opportunities were missing.
Let me give you something else to think about. Our school institutional trusts lands. These are little blocks of land all across the state of Utah. SITLA was charged at statehood to use those blocks of land to derive revenue and that revenue is committed to our schools. Now in the 1990’s that fund had been spent and they were seeing those dollars being drawn down to almost nothing. So there was some reform. Former speaker Mel Brown said we’re going to just let that fund grow and we’re not going to touch the principal ever again.
We sit here today and 2017 after seeing the funds at SITLA grow uninterrupted. We are now drawing fifty million dollars a year. Growing revenue from interest alone that fund now, which was in the tens of millions of dollars in the 1990’s, is now $2,249,000,000 of growth.
We have a sustainable and growing revenue source to public schools. Now go meet your community councils because that’s where those dollars go to, elementary schools, middle schools high schools. Go ask those community councils of those dollars are appreciated and what they can do with those dollars.
I bring that up because I would argue that’s a best practice. That’s something that we should learn from. Should we not prioritize or think about a way of expanding such an incredible program, that brings so much good in a sustainable and growing way to our public schools? I would argue we should. Now I know that some of our education stakeholders may hate the public’s lands issue. They don’t like it. It’s very partisan for some reason but I’m going to tell you, look at the formula that works for other states and look at the limitations we have as a state of Utah. You can see a program as strong as our school institutional Trust Lands program and what it is able to accomplish which is the deriving of dollars off of those lands. How can we not ignore those tax formulas of other states and those successful programs in our state? We must do a better job of making it a bipartisan effort to see the resources and the opportunities of this state and its land managed and protected to provide a sustainable and growing revenue for our public schools. So I leave that with you to think about.
In 2013 there was a bill that was passed and it was the formation of the Commission on Federalism. You see a lot of the things we’re talking about is a relationship between a state and its federal government. We mentioned as part of justice reform and homelessness that we passed a Medicaid bill, a traditional Medicaid bill. With the help of Representative Hutchings and many, many other stakeholders we found thirty million dollars of state money and we talked to HHS from the federal government, we talked to the Beltway and we said what about these waivers we need to make this a Utah plan? And we were told that these waivers were reasonable. We did not do this in the dark, Representative Dunnigan will tell you that his bill was not drafted in a vacuum and it was relayed to us from C.M.S., H.H.S. these that these acronyms from inside the beltway, our Health and Human Services Department, that these were waivers that work and are acceptable. If those waivers were granted you would see one hundred million dollars come to bear for the most vulnerable amongst us. Those zero percent federal poverty level. That works into this homeless issue we’re talking about. JRI has seen a shortfall because of some of the inaction of our federal government, the Medicaid bill that we work so hard on trying to find that right fit.
We’ve seen the waivers in this bill largely ignored in this last year.
The public lands that we talked about, the designation of a monument and even the funding of our public schools, all have a relationship with this federal government and I don’t know that it’s a healthy relationship. So the Commission on Federalism was a commission that began to take inventory of the issues that come upon this state and its right to govern and where the federal government and its laws and regulations impacted and created unintended consequences. In the Senate chamber this morning, Senate President Niederhauser is announcing to his body and I am announcing to you that we are reconstituting our Commission on Federalism during this session and we are going to take special and careful inventory of these issues that impact this state that interrupt our ability to govern as a state.
We’re going to do quick work because I have no doubt we will have a laundry list of issues that we would like this new administration and our leadership within our federal delegation to drill down on and allow for the power and the concentrated power of government within Washington to be released and to be found within its state chambers of its states across the country. We will be providing this list and this good work from this commission to our federal delegation and to the Trump administration because there is great work to do and the window of opportunity is upon us.
So let me say this and conclude, here we go. The issues I just brought up are just scratching the surface; these are just a few of the issues that we’re going to tackle. There is more coming and there are probably issues we don’t even know about yet that are going to take our bandwidth and our time and are going to require that we make votes of conscience and we make hard decisions.
Lets work hard, lets be collaborative, lets have courage, and let’s have the strength of will to make hard choices. We will do that; we have a reputation for it. We’ve done it before. If we continue on that path we know that after forty-five days of this general session we will leave this state better than we found it.
So God bless this effort. God bless the state of Utah. God bless this great nation and thank you.