SALT LAKE CITY — Prayers, choirs and speeches opened the Utah Legislature's 2011 general session Monday at the state Capitol.
But the congenial tones of the morning pomp and circumstance gave way to political maneuvering as the state's 104 part-time legislators got down to business. Setting a budget and hashing out a passel of illegal immigration bills figure to occupy much of the debate during the 45-day session.
"I hope we're ready," said Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City.
Illegal immigration and a Utah County boundary dispute that cost a lawmaker his seat were among the issues addressed outside of chambers by groups holding news conferences and demonstrations on Capitol hill.
Before lawmakers got down to business, Elder L. Tom Perry, of Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offered the invocation in the Senate. Elder Ronald A. Rasband, of the Presidency of the Seventy of the LDS Church, gave the prayer in the House, expressing gratitude for the past leadership and prayed for those assuming the roles.
Elder Rasband also acknowledged "there are many gray issues before this House." He prayed for wisdom and good judgment, and "that there will be compassion and peace in those things which are done here."
New House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, the state's first woman speaker, told lawmakers they will debate immigration and health care reform, education, and "address an economy that needs less government, not more, while it recovers."
In his opening speech, Senate President Michael Waddoups told his colleagues to leave a mark on history during the session.
"Let's make a good mark. Be remembered as one who made a difference," he said. "Be a David to a Goliath of bad government."
Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, asked senators to give Democratic ideas a fair hearing and allow them to be part of the conversation in the public square. He also asked for debates to be civil.
"It's important as we disagree to not be disagreeable," he said.
The Republican majority in the Legislature and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert are already at odds over whether further budget cuts are needed this session to deal with the so-called structural imbalance left as a result of the end of federal stimulus funds and other one-time sources of revenues.
Lockhart referred to the $313 million imbalance as a "dangerous" problem in the state budget.
She also raised a popular issue with her party: state sovereignty.
"Is Utah willing to tell the federal government to go away when it oversteps its authority?" the speaker asked, invoking a warning by Thomas Jefferson about government becoming "big enough to take away everything that you have."
Lockhart was sworn in by the man she defeated for the position after last November's elections, now-Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara.
Also Monday, the House clerk read in the name of now-former Rep. Craig Frank, R-Cedar Hills, as part of the official roster, then noted he had resigned and announced the District 57 seat is now vacant.
Frank found out earlier this month he lived outside his district when he entered his address into a new House website and another lawmaker's name came up as his representative.
He had hoped to keep his seat, arguing that his election had been certified by the lieutenant governor's office, but gave up that fight Friday.
There's a chance Frank could return to his seat if two-thirds of both the House and the Senate agree to change the district boundaries before Utah County Republicans meet on Saturday to choose a new representative.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, is carrying a bill to redraw the Cedar Hills boundaries to include what was a newly annexed area when the maps were drawn a decade ago. House leaders said they will wait until the bill arrives from the Senate before discussing the issue.
The Senate sent the bill to its Rules Committee where it could be held until lawmakers decide if it should get an immediate hearing on the floor or be sent to a committee hearing, which would slow the process.
"I am pushing to have the vote now," said Valentine, who was also affected by the boundary mix-up. "I'm trying to say the voters should have a say to replace Rep. Frank. They should have the voice, not the Legislature through its inaction."
Waddoups isn't keen on the legislation originating in the Senate and would prefer discussing the issue with the House before moving forward.
"Personally, I think it should come from the House. It shouldn't be a Senate bill. It's their issue," he said.
"This is the first step in correcting an egregious error," said Karen Herd, chair of one of the Cedar Hills precincts left off the official state map of the district. "The right to vote is fundamental and is the basis for our representative form of government."
The difference between the state and Utah County maps has meant some 2,500 residents have been in the wrong House, Senate and congressional district since the boundaries were last redrawn after the 2000 census.
Until Frank discovered the problem, residents thought he'd been their representative since 2003, along with Valentine and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Instead, they're represented by Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork, who has joined Valentine in pushing for the boundary change; Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper; and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
The House GOP caucus overwhelmingly voted last week against seating Frank and fell short of enough votes to support redrawing the district boundaries. House Democrats were advised Monday to stay out of the fight by an attorney hired by the state Democratic Party to examine the issue.
With lawmakers set to begin redrawing all of the state's legislative and congressional boundaries again later this year based on the 2010 Census results, there is reluctance to make a change that could benefit one of Lockhart's political allies.8 comments on this story
The boundary change, which would required a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate and the signature of the governor to take effect immediately, has the backing of the Utah Eagle Forum.
Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said not allowing the affected Cedar Hills residents to be represented by the elected officials they voted for amounts to taxation without representation.
"This is our kind of issue," Ruzicka said. "We just want the Legislature to do the right thing."