ST. GEORGE — Breakfast was served with a side of politics Tuesday morning for members of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce as local state legislators provided a preview of what may be expected at this year’s upcoming legislative session.
Reps. Lowry Snow, Walt Brooks, Travis Seegmiller and Brad Last, along with Sen. Don Ipson, were featured at the legislative preview breakfast held at the Hilton Garden Inn in St. George. With the exception of Last, whose legislative district includes both Washington and Iron counties, all legislators in attendance represent Washington County.
Each lawmaker shared brief summaries of the bills they plan to run this year and spoke to issues such as the state budget and whether there would be a new round of pandemic-related bills.
Brooks mentioned two particular bills he is sponsoring this year.
One is a new Social Security bill, which is co-sponsored with Ipson and aimed at increasing the tax threshold from $50,000 to $60,000 for retired couples. Anyone under that threshold would no longer pay the state Social Security tax. Brooks has a similar bill that passed last year that raised the threshold to $50,000.
“I think if we keep raising the threshold, it will eventually get rid of the tax,” he said.
Another bill Brooks is running would ban the vaccine passports that show someone’s COVID-19 vaccination status. Such passports are used to allow people into particular venues, while those without could be denied.
“I feel pretty strongly about not having to show your health status when you go shopping,” he said. “I think that’s not American.”
Snow followed Brooks and mentioned he was running four education-focused bills and four criminal justice reform bills, among others.
Among the criminal justice bills he hopes to pass this year is a ban on the state’s death penalty. Previous attempts by other legislators to do away with the death penalty in Utah have thus far come up short.
A senate bill Snow is co-sponsoring on the House floor codifies performance funding goals for institutions of higher learning.
“We’d fund our higher education based on performance goals,” Snow said. “Those that perform in certain areas and metrics receive more funding.”
Snow, who previously announced he would not be running for reelection, also noted it was the last time he would be speaking at one of the chamber’s legislative preview breakfasts. It was somewhat emotional for him, he said, adding he was grateful for the opportunity to represent people in Washington County for nearly a decade.
Due to prior commitments, Snow left the breakfast early shortly after the mic was passed to Ipson.
While Ipson mentioned he is running a bill related to how courts handle fines, he spoke more to the state’s budget and the large amount of revenue pumped into it by the federal government in the form of pandemic relief funding. Ipson currently serves as the vice chair of the Senate’s Executive Appropriations Committee.
“Managing expectations with the amount of surplus – I think its funny money,” he said. “The federal government has put in so much money, it amounts to something like $12 billion into our economy. When that money’s all gone, there’s a cliff out there, and I don’t want to fall off of it.”
The state will need to be cautious with how the money is used, Ipson said, and will also need to set reserves for when the pandemic relief money runs out. He added that everybody’s got a great idea for special projects they’d like to fund with the budget surplus, but legislators need to be conservative in how they use that money.
The state budget surplus was originally estimated at around $900 million. However, funding for areas of education, rainy day funds and $160 million for a proposed tax cut have since been taken off the top.
As for Last, who also serves as the chair of the House Executive Appropriations Committee, he spoke to bills related to the budget and appropriations, as well as a bill amending how the transient room tax revenue can be used. The tax is applied to hotel stays and is meant to be used to promote tourism-related items in the specific community from which it is collected. As such, there is a narrow scope in how funds from the tax may be applied.
“I think there are some things we can do to really enhance the visitor experience, so we’re going to try and expand that transient room tax so it can be used for a few other things so we can make it a better experience when visitors come,” Last said.
Seegmiller, who arrived late due to family responsibilities, said he was working on a bill that would require the contract language used in low-interest loans to be better explained and clarified for the consumer. He is also working on legislation to address potential obscenity issues in public schools related to how the internet is used by students.
“My piece is especially on the internet side, like what kind of things are allowed to get into our public school kids’ heads when they are using taxpayer-funded Chromebooks and taxpayer-funded internet networks and taxpayer-funded databases,” Seegmiller said. “How do we make it so that what they are doing is what they ought to be doing and what they see is what they ought to be seeing?”
More on the budget surplus
Don Willie, president and CEO of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, moderated Tuesday’s event and asked the legislators if any of the budget surplus may go to pandemic-related bills or relief programs.
Last said it was more than likely that a few COVID-19 bills would pop up during the session. As for programs, he said a “big challenge” for the state currently involves COVID-19 testing.
“We’ve pumped a lot of money into the system already for testing,” he said. “My guess is, we’ll have a primary focus on trying to keep the economy going by working on testing.”
Utah and other red states states have largely avoided lockdowns and mandates, Last said, adding that it has been left to individuals to take responsibility for themselves in this case. He nonetheless encouraged people to be vaccinated and boosted, as that can help diminish the severity of the virus and keep people out of the hospital.
Other than that, he said, there will be a “lot of one-time money we can use this year,” adding that legislators are being careful not to apply it to ongoing expenditures.
Some of the surplus may also be used for infrastructure upgrades, Brooks said.
As noted above, Utah’s budget surplus started out with around $900 million, with $160 million taken of the top to be applied to potential income tax reductions.
Though not in attendance at the breakfast, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, was mentioned related to legislation he has filed that would reduce the state’s income tax from 4.95 to 4.9%.
Last said although the legislators agree there should be some tax cut, caution should be exercised.
“In conversations with the Senate leadership, one of the things we want to be careful of is dropping the income tax,” he said. “We don’t want to drop it too far because we feel like in two or three years, we may have to come back and raise the taxes again, and we don’t want to do that. … You’ll hear a lot about tax cuts during this session. I have no doubt about that.”
The 2022 general session of the Utah Legislature begins Tuesday.
Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2022 Utah Legislature here.
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