The week of Jan. 17 marked historic political change, both in Utah and nationwide.

The Utah State legislative session began Tuesday, Jan. 19, and will continue until March 5, addressing a wide range of issues including education funding reform, COVID-19 emergency spending and tax cuts.

On Wednesday, Jan. 20, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. was sworn into office as America’s 46th president.

“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day. Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause: The cause of democracy,” Biden said in his inaugural address.

Utah legislative session begins

The Utah legislative session began on Jan. 19 with the ringing of State Capitol bells to honor the over 1,500 Utahns that have died from COVID-19 since March 2020. Priorities for the session include a possible tax cut, police reform bills, equalizing school funding and “balancing” the emergency powers of the state government and state health department during the coronavirus pandemic.

House Speaker Brad Wilson (R-Kaysville) told Deseret News that it is unlikely that legislators will make any changes to Utah’s current mask mandate. But the state government’s expanded powers during the pandemic have rankled lawmakers, who fear an absence of checks, balances and separation between the executive and legislative branches of Utah’s government.

“When we put together emergency powers legislation many, many years ago, I don’t think people anticipated that emergency would go for a long period of time,” said Senate President Stuart Adams (R-Layton) about the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, Utah lawmakers designated $80 million for tax cuts but ended up keeping the money as the pandemic dawned and economic distress set in. Newly inaugurated Gov. Spencer Cox suggested that the $80 million take the form of Social Security tax credit for seniors and dependents, while Wilson hinted that the initial $80 million may be increased.

Already, the Executive Appropriations Committee has thrown its support behind a budget plan that would give K-12 school teachers and staff $1,500 and $1,000 bonuses respectively.

Alongside these top priorities, the Utah legislature will aim to address infrastructure, affordable housing, homelessness and police reform throughout this next session. Lawmakers are focusing on police violence prevention, with de-escalation training legislation likely to garner the most support.

Utah pols react to Biden inauguration

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. was sworn into office on Wednesday, Jan. 20 after a tumultuous transfer of power. Former President Donald Trump did not attend the inauguration — the first sitting president not to do so in over a century — leaving the White House early on Wednesday for Florida. After Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building on Jan. 6 and his subsequent second impeachment by the House of Representatives on Jan. 13, Trump spent his last days in office issuing pardons and vowing that “the movement we started is only just beginning.”

Before the inauguration, Biden and Harris honored the over 400,000 Americans who have lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. 400 lights surrounded the pool’s perimeter with each light representing 1,000 coronavirus deaths.

“It was an honor to witness President Biden swear to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States today,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) said in a statement on Wednesday after attending the inauguration. “We may not agree on everything, but I know we share common ground on some key issues like criminal justice reform and tax relief for working families.”

Rep. John Curtis, representing Utah’s third district in the House of Representatives, also attended the inauguration.

“Although I may have philosophical differences with the President, I have tremendous respect for the office,” he captioned an Instagram post. “My attendance should stand as my commitment to wake up every morning and look in the mirror as I ask myself if I’m an agent for hate and darkness or for love and light.”

“Despite the differences Americans may share on matters of policy, we share the common goal of ensuring that America continues to be a beacon of hope and freedom for all,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) shared to Twitter on Wednesday.

At the Jan. 19 meeting of the Grand County Commission, commissioners unanimously approved a letter to Sen. Mitt Romney, recognizing his resolve in upholding the Constitution in light of the disturbing breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

“As public servants we are constantly challenged to advocate for and amplify the voices of our constituents, uphold the constitution, and lead by example,” the letter states. “Your resolve in this difficult time has been an inspiring reminder of the importance of leadership that is grounded, focused, and able to recognize when particular discourse or rhetoric violates the vital principles that hold us together.”

Biden indicated his plans for his first 100 days in office prior to his inauguration, proposing legislation that would give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship and expand protections for refugees and asylum seekers, while also committing to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, re-enter the Iran nuclear deal and end the Trump Administration’s travel bans on primarily Muslim countries.

State legislative session begins; Biden inaugurated