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Salt Lake City — Business and community leaders, along with Utah’s lieutenant governor and several legislators, joined The United Way of Salt Lake Wednesday for a legislative preview breakfast. The event allowed the community to hear first-hand from legislators, along with representatives from United Way, about major issues that will be discussed during the upcoming legislative session.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said the governor’s focus continues to be on education. One bill, the school readiness bill, sponsored by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, aims to provide better pre-kindergarten education to at-risk children so that they are more prepared for kindergarten and have better abilities to stay on track up through high school graduation.
“I think there is more acceptance and understanding to what he is trying to do this year,” Cox said. “I’ve known for many years the importance of early childhood education. Funding is always an issue. There are several bills asking for increased funding for education, and we’ll be in discussion for each of those.”
Another major talking point during the legislative session will be healthcare, Cox said.
“The big question comes down to Medicaid expansion,” he said. “This is one of the more difficult issues we’ve seen as a state over time. It’s a very complicated issue.”
Cox said because the landscape of healthcare has completely changed due to the Affordable Care Act, some issues have been created.
“The issue that has come out of this comes from a Supreme Court decision,” he said. “They gave states the opportunity to opt in to a portion of Medicaid expansion. There is some mandatory expansion we have to deal with and pay for, but the problem comes from a ‘donut hole’—this group of people under 100 percent of poverty. That line is a little convoluted, but there’s this donut hole of people who aren’t covered, and that comes at a cost to the state.”
Cox said the governor and his staff, along with legislators, have to ask themselves if there are better, more efficient or cheaper ways to fill that gap. “Another question is who gets to make this decision?” Cox said.
Lastly, another major issue that will be discussed, like in many years past, is air quality, Cox said.
“We understand the stats and facts behind it as well as the public perception,” he said. “The truth is that our air is cleaner than it was 20 years ago, but the truth is also that our air quality stinks. That’s something we should not be proud of.”
Cox said while the state has made some progress in the air quality arena, there is still a lot more that can be done. He said during the winter months, state leaders don’t want businesses to tour Utah specifically because of the air quality.
Since the issue has become so prominent to so many people, there is more collaboration occurring between industry leaders, political leaders and the community. “The good news is there is a coalescing starting to happen,” he said. “We’re starting to understand that there will be shared sacrifices and we can work together.”
Besides Cox’s address, a group of panelists also answered questions about key issues facing the upcoming legislature. The questions focused mainly on education and health. The panelists were Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, House Minority Assistant Whip Rebecca Chavez-Houck, Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams and Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis.
In addition, Tom Love, president of Love Communications, presented United Way’s top two priorities, which included increasing awareness of the state’s 2-1-1 hotline, a hotline that provides Utah residents with a variety of services and information. United Way also hopes to build upon the existing public-private partnership funding structure that includes funds from the state and continued private funding through United Way. The organization's other priority is supporting Rep. Hughes’ school readiness bill with an “I STAND 4 PRE-K” campaign.
Overall, Cox said Utahns, including political leaders, have a tendency to pat themselves on the back too much—something that has to change in order to see results.
“We have a tendency to pat ourselves on the back, and we should because Utah ranks highly in almost every metric, but at the same time, we recognize there is much that can be done,” he said. “Sometimes we pat ourselves on the back too much and close our eyes to major problems happening in the state. I assure you that’s not what’s going to happen as we look forward to [this year’s legislative] session.”