A year ago when Hughes, a Republican from Draper, took the speaker’s gavel, he said he did so with little knowledge about the state’s public land battle and the importance of water in the second driest state. But with 365 days now under his belt, Hughes made it sound as though these efforts would become his legislative priorities.
“I’ve had it, I’ve had it with federal management, or mismanagement,” Hughes said. “I’ve had with a federal government that isn’t close to the people and far away, suggesting that they can manage this state and its lands better than we could.”
Hughes praised the Legislature’s Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands, which he said assembled a “dream team” of lawyers that prepared a report on the feasibility of taking back the public’s land. The report spurred the commission to initiate a lawsuit against the federal government that the lawyers said would cost $14 million.
The speaker urged his colleagues to get savvy on the topic of public lands, connecting the issue to population growth, economic growth, energy development, energy independence, public education, environmental protection and “fundamental principles of fairness and freedom.”
Hughes even ventured into rarely chartered waters on the issue, using a statistic that shows that 90 percent of Utahns live on one percent of the state’s land to accuse the federal government of instituting a form of “population control.”
Hughes’ barbs on public lands flowed into an admonition to his colleagues to make funding water infrastructure projects a priority. State water managers have said billions of dollars in aging infrastructure needs attention, in addition to the billions of dollars being sought to fund the Lake Powell and Bear River pipelines.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, has put forth a bill that proposes to divert funding away from transportation and into a fund created to bankroll the pipelines, which environmental groups, the Legislative Auditor and Gov. Gary Herbert have all said these projects need to be evaluated with better data before billions can be spent.
Hughes added that he refuses to see water as an inhibitor to growth. The Mormon pioneers, he said, came into the Salt Lake Valley and immediately dammed up City Creek. This forward thinking and the many water projects that followed, Hughes said, have paved the way for massive population growth that must continue.
Slowing down and failing to spur “robust population growth and economic growth,” Hughes said, “That’s a false premise and it’s one that would contradict this state, its pioneer heritage and its history. I don’t want you to be a part of that narrative.”
Hughes also said the Legislature ought to make good on an effort by the late Speaker Becky Lackhart, who attempted during her final year in office to pass a “one-to-one” education initiative, which would put an iPod, or similar technological device, in the hands of every school child in the state.
“It is time for us to fulfill the vision of our late Speaker Becky Lockhart and be serious about this and see meaningful legislation that makes tech a more meaningful part of our children’s’ educational experience,” Hughes said.
Rep. Brian King, the Democratic leader, took aim at Hughes’ claim that the House relies on “good information driving good decisions.” King said that good information on many of the topics Hughes focused on does exist, and it has existed for “years and years.”
“We know what will benefit the state,” King said. “And we know what the state wants. Real political courage is when a leader turns to his caucus and says ‘No more pipe dreams fueled by special interest.’ That is our only chance to genuinely address and solve the issues our state faces today.”
In a nearly hour-long speech on Monday at the State Capitol, House Speaker Greg Hughes opened the 2016 Utah Legislature with his sights aimed on the natural world, pledging to take over ownership of federally managed public land, ending red air quality days and resurrecting a “pioneer heritage” of water infrastructure that will shepherd in a new era of population explosion and economic prosperity.