In contrast to their Republican counterparts, Democratic lawmakers made responding to the COVID-19 pandemic a key legislative priority, along with improving quality of life, providing equal opportunity and combating Utah’s poor air quality.
Democrats from both chambers of the Legislature held a press conference on the front steps of the Capitol on Thursday to lay out their priorities in advance of Gov. Spencer Cox’s State of the State address.
“We think it’s critical that as we prepare to listen to the governor’s State of the State, that we also, as members of the minority caucus … present our priorities, that have been very consistent for decades focusing on family values and Utah,” said Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City.
‘Not off to a great start’
Speaking on Day 3 of the general session — which has already seen Republicans race to try to overturn Salt Lake County’s mask mandate — Democrats expressed frustration with their colleagues for their attitude toward the pandemic and made it clear they plan to continue taking the virus seriously.
“Here we are three days into the 2022 legislative session, and frankly, we’re not off to a great start,” said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City. “We’re seeing legislators show up testing positive for COVID-19 and refusing to wear a mask to keep the rest of us safe. Four thousand Utahns have died. Our hospitals are full.”
The comments came days after Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, made conflicting comments about whether he tested negative or positive for COVID-19 on the first day of the 2022 session Tuesday. Only after requests for clarification did Senate staff confirm to the Deseret News that Adams indeed tested positive — twice — Tuesday morning.
Democrats, however, did not mention Adams by name when making their remarks Thursday.
“I guess my ask is that I hope people will be considerate of each other,” said Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, who is a medical doctor professionally. “There have been a couple of times that I thought I might be more protected from catching COVID at the hospital taking care of COVID patients than I am … up here (at the Capitol). I really think we all need to be looking out for each other and being respectful of each other.”
“I think that we have a good opportunity to do what’s best to protect the people around us,” said Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City. “But also recognizing that if we don’t do our best to protect everyone around us, everybody with a preexisting condition is categorically disenfranchised from taking part in the public process here at the Capitol.”
Wages and opportunity
Democrats repeatedly stressed their commitment to increasing wages and helping low-income Utahns by eliminating the grocery tax. In his budget proposal, Gov. Cox recommended a refundable grocery tax credit, which would give $160 million back to some taxpayers. The Democrats said they agree with the credit, but would like to see the tax eliminated at the cash register, which they say would make it easier for taxpayers to take advantage of the savings.
“It doesn’t involve any high-handed administration of having people receive quarterly payments or requesting money eight to 10 months after it’s needed,” said Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden, who is working on legislation to eliminate the food tax. “So in that case, we’re embracing simplicity for Utah families and residents.”
Senate Minority Caucus Manager Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said he wants to see the state invest in future opportunities for children by providing higher quality education and child care. He said students should feel safe at school and “not fear that a shooting is going to take place.”
Democrats are pushing for funding for full-day kindergarten, as well as health care coverage for all children in the state.
Dailey-Provost echoed Davis’ call to provide child care and added that paid and sick leave would greatly improve quality of life for many Utahns.
“Democrats stand for worker protection because it’s the workers — essential workers, especially — who make our state’s economic prosperity possible,” she said.
Clean air and water
“I want you all to take a look around today,” Kitchen said, gesturing to the inversion which obscured the city skyline. “You see that air quality out here? You can almost taste it. It’s certainly not anything we should be proud of. … Utah is a treasure for many reasons but if we don’t take care of our environment, its shine will certainly fade.”
Improving air quality is “critical,” he said, because Utahns are “literally sick because we can’t breathe our air.” He called air pollution a “massive liability to our prosperity” because it makes it harder to recruit top talent to the state’s private sector.
Expanding water conservation efforts, reducing emissions and investing in sustainable infrastructure are all part of the Democrats’ plan to improve air and water quality. They also want to see the state move toward a carbon-free economy, which they say will create new jobs and opportunities.
Kitchen said he has seen “baby steps” taken toward preserving the Great Salt Lake and conserving water in Utah, but feels that the state needs to start “taking leaps and bounds.”
“We want to live in a Utah where we have clean air, healthy land and drinkable water,” he said.
What can Democrats hope to accomplish?
Republicans hold a supermajority in both the House and Senate, giving Democrats no chance of passing legislation without broad bipartisan support. Democrats are well aware of their position, saying they have worked to identify policies they can collaborate on with the GOP.
“We’re encouraged by the fact that things we’ve been talking about for many, many years — decades even — our Republican colleagues are coming around on,” said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. “Family-friendly policies involving the environment … so in that sense it’s great. We’re always going to have things that we disagree about, but we’re encouraged by many priorities the governor has made in his budget. He’s come out and said we need to do a better job of directing tax relief to those who are struggling to literally put bread on the table.”
Although the two parties disagree on how to resolve the grocery tax and similar policy issues, King said both sides agree on the need to find a solution.
“I encourage you to look into the bills we are running that may look similar to a member of the majority caucus, but we think we have the best solutions,” Escamilla said. “We will work with them and get to consensus-building, which is what we do.”
Correction: A previous version of this article and its headline incorrectly stated that Democrats called out Senate President Stuart Adams for failing to follow CDC COVID-19 guidelines on Tuesday after testing positive for the illness. Democrats did not identify who they were criticizing.