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Ravell Call, Deseret News
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, becomes emotional after joining in singing a patriotic song during the opening session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has a part-time Legislature, but House Speaker Greg Hughes told lawmakers Monday he won’t allow it to be treated like a part-time branch of government.

In his remarks opening the 2018 legislative session, the Draper Republican promised several separation of powers measures to resolve the dispute legislators had with Gov. Gary Herbert over how to conduct a midterm congressional election.

Hughes asked his colleagues to “laser in” on those bills “to protect our branch.”

The Legislature could lose its impact, “so we have to stay vigilant,” he said.

Noting that Monday was his last first day as speaker and a House member, he called on his colleagues to maintain the Legislature’s culture of getting things done, while taking a jab at the federal government shutdown.

“This is not a somber moment. This is a rallying cry. This is a call to arms,” said Hughes, who announced last month that he isn’t seeking re-election.

In the Senate, President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, described a long list of issues facing lawmakers, including dealing with a transportation infrastructure that remains congested despite billions of dollars of investment over the years.

Niederhauser also used his introductory remarks to honor Matt Hillyard, the late son of Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. Matt Hillyard, who had Down syndrome and died in January at 42, celebrated his birthday at the Legislature every year.

Lyle Hillyard told the Senate he hoped everyone could learn from his son, known as the "King of Hugs" on Capitol Hill. He said Matt Hillyard loved everyone, always said thank you and cheered the outcome of every competition no matter who won.

The House speaker touched on what he sees as Utah’s successes in public education, public lands and homelessness. He also addressed challenges the state faces in transportation and opioid abuse.

In addition to a number of bills lawmakers will consider, Hughes said he wants to see the state and all of Utah’s 29 counties “enter the fray” to go after Big Pharma in court to hold it accountable for its proliferation of painkillers.

“I want the crush of liability to be felt across this country to the point where it doesn’t make business sense anymore,” he said.

Hughes said he’s had lengthy discussions about the issue with Attorney General Sean Reyes and he agreed to get the state involved in litigation to tell Utah’s “unique” story on painkiller addiction.

Reyes later clarified that Utah is part of a 41-state effort to negotiate a settlement with pharmaceutical companies and is preparing to file a lawsuit should the terms of an agreement be unsatisfactory. The state is currently interviewing private attorneys to handle the case, he said.

“Should we feel that at any time during the process leading up to settlement that the manufacturers and distributors aren’t cooperating with the states, then we wanted to have the gun loaded, figuratively, ready to pull the trigger on a lawsuit,” the attorney general said at a hastily called news conference.

Reyes said pharmaceutical companies for decades pushed drugs that were highly addictive and hid that information from doctors and communities that were desperate.

Last month, Hughes joined Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill in announcing plans to join other counties and states across the nation that are suing opioid drug manufacturers.

Tax reform was big on the Senate president's list for the 45-day session. Niederhauser said "by far" the biggest problem facing the state is the shift of some $600 million from the general fund for transportation needs because gas taxes continue to fall short.

He said increasing the gas tax, instituting tolls on roads and adding fees to alternative fuel vehicles may be unpopular, but need to be discussed in the coming session.

Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said there is still a lot of uncertainty around the impact of the recent federal tax changes on state income tax revenues.

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Stevenson said $20 million is a number we "all feel comfortable with," but that could climb to $85 million or be wiped out entirely depending on how the IRS handles a new tax break for some small businesses.

"It's a grab bag," he said, especially coming in a budget year where even with other additional revenues anticipated, lawmakers are going to be hard-pressed to cover the state's growing needs and previously committed items including new buildings.

Utah State Tax Commission Chairman John Valentine is scheduled to address the issue at the Executive Appropriations Committee meeting Thursday, Stevenson said, likely presenting several options.