SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah lawmakers grind through a record number of bills this year, they're being steered by a Senate president known for his calm and analytical accountant's temperament and a House speaker who used to be a boxer and is now scrapping it up on issues like homelessness.
Here's a look at those top Republicans and other lawmakers to watch during the legislative session:
This is Greg Hughes' third session as the speaker of Utah's House of Representatives, a tenure marked by his marshalling of House Republicans as they resisted Gov. Gary Herbert's push to expand Medicaid. Hughes, a real estate developer, former boxer and ex-chairman of the Utah Transit Authority, is throwing his weight this year into a push to help Salt Lake City address its overflowing homeless shelter and related problems, including drug dealing and other crimes.
Wayne Niederhauser, a Sandy accountant and real estate developer who has served in the Legislature for over a decade, said at the start of the session that this year that settling and balancing Utah's budget is one of his chief priorities — as it is every year. Niederhauser, who tends to stake out a more cautious stance than his House counterpart on issues, opposes a push by business leaders to raise Utah's income tax rate to generate money for schools. Instead, he's looking for legislators to compel online retailers to collect and hand over sales tax from Utah purchasers.
Brian King, the highest-ranking Democrat in the House, has been a recurring political foil to Hughes. King, backed by his Democratic caucus, has advocated for the newly-named Bears Ears National Monument and the expansion of Medicaid. Though Democrats are hugely outnumbered, King is likely to continue to counterpunch Hughes this session on public lands, education funding and more. He's also running a bill similar to one that conservative lawmakers shut down last year, which would allow parents to opt-in their child to a more comprehensive sex education than the state's current abstinence-focused instruction.
Brad Wilson stepped into the role of House Majority Leader this year, a second-in-command to Hughes leading 60-plus Republicans in that chamber. Wilson, a homebuilder, has helped oversee the state's contentious, mega-project to move the aging prison from Draper to Salt Lake City. This year, Wilson's stepping into another thorny issue, running a proposal to remove the so-called "Zion Curtain," a requirement that some Utah restaurants build a barrier around their bars to shield the preparation of alcoholic drinks. Other legislators have tried before, but with a member of the Republican leadership taking issue on this year, the "curtain" may be lifted.
Since entering the Senate in 2013, Jim Dabakis has been known as an outspoken lawmaker who has dared to tread where others in the largely conservative Legislature won't — whether that's a proposal to make it illegal for businesses to refuse to serve gay or transgender people for religious reasons, or taking a secret trip to Iran that sparked concerns from the country's hardliners that the visit from the Utah senator was a security breach. Dabakis is at it again this year, with proposals to raise taxes on the rich to pay for education, express support for tackling climate change and ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Patrice Arent, a Salt Lake City Democrat, has spearheaded the Legislature's steps to address the state's poor air quality over the years. Arent says the state has passed more clean air legislation during the last three sessions than ever before, but there's more work to do, such as removing exemptions for vehicle emissions tests and boosting solar thermal technology. As legislators have kicked off their session amid a particularly long stretch of smoggy days, she's expected to help to keep that going this year and push back against any efforts to roll back environmental protection measures.
Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice