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Utah Legislature Opens Amid Pandemic, Protest Concerns

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Legislature’s 2021 session opened Tuesday with words of hope and heightened security measures against a backdrop of possibly violent protests and the coronavirus pandemic.

The Capitol, which is usually buzzing with activity as lobbyists, advocates and others walk the halls, was largely empty on the first day of the session aside from lawmakers and several National Guard troops. The Capitol grounds have been under a state of emergency order following concerns of armed protest leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Social distancing, masks and a handshake ban were enforced throughout the Capitol, and lawmakers in the House were separated by plexiglass barricades. The building is temporarily closed to the public. But there are also technological upgrades aimed at making it easier for people to weigh in virtually on lawmakers’ proposals.

Republican House Speaker Brad Wilson urged lawmakers to remain cautious and follow COVID-19 health restrictions throughout the 45-day session.

“As vaccines begin to be administered across the state, now is not the time to let our guard down,” Wilson said during his opening remarks. “Under these far less than ideal circumstances, we should all do our part to protect one another so we can continue the work of the people of Utah.”

Wilson lauded how Utah residents have dealt with the pandemic and called on lawmakers to help bolster Utah’s economy and education system. He said the House would increase public education funding by at least $400 million to help students further develop critical thinking skills and prepare them for education after high school.

Wilson said lawmakers should also work to expand rural internet access, address the state’s rising home prices in urban areas and provide a tax cut. Rural wireless and broadband access has also been a goal of new GOP Gov. Spencer Cox.

“Two sessions ago, the Legislature set aside $80 million for tax relief,” Wilson said. “Let’s finish what we started and work to find the most appropriate way to provide that relief to Utahns.”

His counterpart in the other Legislative chamber, Senate President Stuart Adams, sounded a similar note. “2021 will be the year of the tax cut!” he said. The state has a one-time $1 billion surplus, he said.

Adams called for reducing state taxes on Social Security and military retirements to help senior citizens, and finding ways to mitigate changes to the federal tax code that have been hard on large families.

Adams also called for increases to education funding, and he again urged Salt Lake City schools to reconvene in-person classes. The capital has been hard-hit by the virus and is now the only district in the state with remote schooling.

Adams also said he is committed to addressing the mental health needs of people in Utah. He pointed to a Davis County program that gives people treatment in lieu of jail sentences as a model.

“Our work this year is just beginning,” he said.

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Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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