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Jon Huntsman Jr.

Even though the Utah Legislature spent $20,000 remodeling the new, temporary House chambers to accommodate Gov.-elect Jon Huntsman Jr.'s first State of the State address next month, Huntsman has decided to give the address down in Fillmore's old Territorial Statehouse building.

Since, by law, the governor's State of the State address must be given to the Legislature, the 104 part-time lawmakers (or most of them, anyway) must travel 140 miles south to Utah's first capitol to hear Huntsman, who takes office Jan. 3.

"The governor's own (political action committee) will pick up half of the cost, roughly estimated to be $10,000," to transport lawmakers and other dignitaries to the speech from Salt Lake City, said Huntsman's chief of staff Jason Chaffetz.

That's nice, said incoming House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy.

"We don't have any money budgeted for such a trip. And I don't know how many legislators, so busy at the opening of the session, want to take the time and effort to go all the way down to Fillmore to hear a speech they can watch on TV. I promised (Huntsman) I'll go, but I can't say" how many of his colleagues will do likewise.

In truth, said Curtis, "Lately, the State of the State address by the governor has become more of a media event than a real address to the Legislature."

The governor addresses the Legislature on a day legislative leaders set. Most likely, Huntsman will give the address during the first week of the 2005 Legislature, which convenes Jan. 17.

"We're looking at Jan. 18, but we don't want to conflict with President Bush's State of the Union address, so we're waiting for White House confirmation on when the president will speak to Congress," Chaffetz said.

The 90-year-old Utah Capitol building itself is closed for four years for $200 million worth of earthquake-proofing and general remodeling. And the new chambers, located in an office building behind the Capitol, has the same floor space as the old chambers but smaller public galleries. In addition, the new chambers have a 12-foot ceiling. The old chambers had large second-story galleries and were much more open and grandiose.

Chaffetz added that he hopes the Legislature didn't remodel the temporary House chambers "just to build us a stage, because we've had zero communication" with state officials about the chambers not being adequate for the State of the State address, said Chaffetz.

Curtis said he had one brief conversation with Huntsman about the State of the State address, well after work on the dais had begun.

"He wanted to get out to rural Utah" for the speech, said Curtis.

As reported previously in the Deseret Morning News, getting senators and others into the temporary House chambers to hear Huntsman was one of the main reasons the large, new dais was ripped out last month and the old dais — which was sitting in the Capitol House chambers — was moved in.

When the House and Senate meet in joint conference to hear the governor, the 29 senators, five Utah Supreme Court justices and other dignitaries will sit on folding chairs in the aisle between the front row of the 75 representatives' desks and the dais, which holds the speaker and House clerical staff.

The new dais was too big, the aisle too narrow, and so the senators and justices would have had to sit on the chamber's sides and in the rear. Unacceptable, legislative leaders decided — thus the remodeling.

But no one told Huntsman that the $20,000 remodeling was taking place, said Chaffetz. Huntsman decided to go south for other reasons.

"We're excited to get out to the people of Utah, away from Salt Lake City" for the speech, Chaffetz said. "You'll see Gov. Huntsman out among the people all the time, and it's good to get the Legislature out, too."

Huntsman may give his three other annual State of the State addresses during his four-year term outside of Salt Lake City as well, Chaffetz added.

"We've talked about St. George and other places," he said.

Some speculated Huntsman didn't want to address lawmakers in the new, cramped House chambers because onlookers (guests of the governor who normally interrupt the State of the State with applause and cheering) would have to sit behind glass windows in two floor-level galleries. Accordingly, Huntsman might not get the reception he desires, with TV viewers wondering why no one is cheering the new governor's talk.

But Chaffetz said audience reaction didn't play a role in shunning Capitol Hill, since Fillmore's Territorial Statehouse is not very large, either.

"We can only get about 130 people in there, including the legislators. Audience reaction wasn't a consideration," he said. "Jon has family ties in the area, he wants to get himself and the Legislature out more."

True, some Wasatch Front residents who may have driven up to the Capitol to watch the State of the State address won't be able to attend in Fillmore. But, said Chaffetz, the speech will be carried live by local radio and TV stations "and anyone who wants to see it, can."

"It's very time-consuming for us to make a trip like this," said Curtis. "But I'll be there."

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