SALT LAKE CITY — The new leader of the Utah Senate is smiling, but his tone is firm when he says his hefty transportation funding earmark, long opposed by Gov. Gary Herbert, is here to stay.
"Oh, I think so," incoming Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said during a recent early morning interview in front of the fireplace in the private formal lounge just off the Senate floor.
Adams, 64, then chuckled briefly when pressed about his 2011 bill setting aside more than $600 million annually for roads that was vetoed by the GOP governor, an action overridden by lawmakers in a special session.
"I think the governor supports it now. You'd have to ask him. But I think he understands exactly the concept," Adams said, even though Herbert's proposed budget calls for reducing earmarks.
With taxes at the top of the agenda for the 2019 Legislature that begins meeting Monday, earmarks aren't getting much attention. Instead, the focus is on the governor's other plans for what he describes as tax modernization.
Legislative leaders agree with Herbert that the sales tax base needs to be broadened by adding taxes to some yet-to-be identified services. There's also interest in his proposed $200 million tax cut, given the state's more than $1 billion budget surplus.
Adams sees no need to revisit his transportation earmark, describing designating ongoing revenues for what are often one-time projects as insurance against economic uncertainty.
"That's what I call a working rainy day fund," Adams said, noting hundreds of millions of dollars of earmarked transportation funds were diverted to other state needs during the last recession a decade ago — and could be again if necessary.
"That's a possibility, but I can't be negative. I just want to be positive," Adams said of another recession. "I'm not going to predict that we're going to have a downturn. But what I will predict is we ought to be prepared for one."
Despite their past differences, Adams said his relationship with the governor remains strong.
"We're still good friends and those types of frictions, I think, are natural," he said.
Herbert said he's optimistic about the opportunities presented by new leadership in both the House and the Senate, where Republicans continue to have supermajority control.
The governor said Adams' "experience in the Utah Senate, in local government and in business will serve him well in his new role as Senate president. He has given so much service to our state, and I look forward to working with him."
In 2009, Adams was on the shortlist to become lieutenant governor when Herbert took over in 2009 for then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who stepped down to become U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama.
Herbert ended up choosing a state senator from Davis County, Greg Bell, over Adams, a former Layton city councilman and Utah House member who was serving as Utah Transportation Commission chairman.
That turned into an opportunity for Adams, a real estate developer with The Adams Co., a decades-old family business that builds "family-friendly" homes in Davis County, to return to the Legislature.
"Sen. Bell happened to be my senator, so it brought me back," Adams said. He was appointed by the governor to fill the remainder of Bell's term and has held the District 22 seat ever since.
Adams joined leadership in 2012, when he was elected majority whip by the Senate Republican caucus. Once he's confirmed by the full Senate Monday, he'll replace now former Sen. Wayne Niederhauser as president.
The transition, Adams said, feels natural because of his closeness with Niederhauser, a Sandy Republican who did not seek re-election to the Senate last year after 12 years in office, including six as president.
"I think he was a great leader, very transparent, very collaborative," Adams said of Niederhauser, promising his tenure in the Senate's top spot would be more of the same.
"President Adams and I have been really close," Niederhauser agreed. He said he relied on Adams' negotiating skills and expects the new president to be more hands-on than he was when it comes to working on bills.
"He is, in my opinion, bar none the best bill sponsor in the Legislature," Niederhauser said, citing Adams' efforts on the historic anti-discrimination and religious rights compromise in 2015.
"It was his negotiating ability that got us where we needed to be," Niederhauser said. "He was a master at keeping people at the table and working out compromises. That was a great strength."
Those skills will carry over to his relationship with the governor, Niederhauser said.
"President Adams knows what it takes to get something done," he said. "When it comes down to taking care of what he wants to do, he's going to be persistent in getting it done."
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said the Senate will be different under Adams.
Weiler described Niederhauser, a CPA, as meticulous with the budget, soft-spoken with a steady hand, while Adams is "a tough negotiator. I think he's very confident and really understands the issues, very, very well. I think he's very strategic."
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said she and Adams share a goal of making sure the Senate runs smoothly.
Education: Bachelor's degree in business finance from University of Utah
Career: Real estate developer
Public offices: Layton City Council, Utah House of Representatives, Utah Senate
Family: Married, 4 children, 15 grandchildren
"He's conservative, but he's always open," said Mayne, the new leader of the six Democrats among the 29 state senators. "If I don't talk to him every day, I talk to him every other day. We have good communication."
Adams counts incoming House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, as a longtime friend and said he expects them to work well together. Both are from Davis County, and both are replacing Salt Lake County lawmakers.
But even though there are no longer any Salt Lake County lawmakers in either House or Senate GOP leadership, Adams doesn't want Davis County to be seen as having outsized control in the state.
"I think we'll look at the state in a holistic way. I think I always have and hopefully, always will. I think we'll be cautious," he said. "We'll try and do what's right. … stay on that high ground and make right decisions. I don't see this as us versus them."
Adams is not shy, however, about touting his heritage as a fifth-generation resident of Layton. Growing up, he sat in traffic with his parents when they commuted to Salt Lake City for work and saw I-15 routed through his neighborhood.
"They built I-15 when I was in the sixth grade. So we'd go out and play on it," he recalled. "But I never heard my parents complain about I-15 being built in our front yard. Except my dad did complain a little bit about the lights."
As an adult, another transportation issue helped push him into politics. Living on the east side of U.S. 89 at a time when there were no traffic lights, Adams said a friend urged him to run for the Layton City Council to remedy the situation.
"He said, 'I'm not worried about you getting across the highway … because you're a better driver now,'" Adams said. "But, he said, 'I remember how you drove in high school and you have a daughter turning 16.' So I went and filed."1 comment on this story
Transportation has been a key issue for Adams throughout his political career, including helping to settle the legal fight over Legacy Highway led by then-Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and to bring commuter rail through Davis County.
Whether the Senate presidency is the last stop on that career remains to be seen for the father of four and grandfather to 15, all living within 20 minutes of his Layton home.
Asked if would rule out running for another office, Adams said, "I'll tell you, my wife has and I'm very obedient. I really don't have any thoughts of anything else right now."