I returned to Capitol Hill this month for our monthly interim meetings. The fall is when things start picking up at the capitol again. There are new issues to discuss and preparations to make for the general session that begins in January. Here are some of the highlights from this month’s meetings —

• Water — Utah is one of the driest and fastest-growing states in the nation, creating challenges for a population that is expected to double by 2060. Maintaining strong farms, healthy aquifers, rivers, lakes and wetlands is another challenge to review. A diverse advisory group, the State Water Strategy, is working to update, revise and recommend a 50-year state water plan. The recommendation consists of 11 key policy questions to consider to help ensure Utah has enough water for years to come, including how much water conservation can help, how to preserve natural systems with the increasing demands on water, how to best protect and sustain our water quality and how to fund innovative solutions to maintain, replace and redesign existing water infrastructures. 

• Wildfires — Fires in the state have been below average in comparison to last year according to a recent Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands report. Statistics for Utah’s 2019 fire season thus far — 

• 34,118 acres burned to date compared to 450,000 acres burned last year

• 2/3 of fires have occurred on state and private land

• 75 percent of fires in Utah are human-caused

• $2.2 million is the estimated state cost to prioritize higher-risk areas and create wildfire awareness across the state. The Utah Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal was launched. It provides wildfire information to the public, local communities, landowners, local government and wildland fire managers. Fire season is expected to continue for the next couple of weeks. The online tool conveys information about wildfire risks, data and prevention efforts.

• Medical Cannabis — Utah passed medical cannabis last year moving forward with the desire of voters to legalize it in our state. Implementing medical cannabis is a learning process, and adjustments were likely going to be needed. Discussion with stakeholders, state agencies and counties have been ongoing. The goal of the changes is to make sure patients have access to the medication within the time frame established in the legislation passed last year. I’ll continue to keep you updated on this issue as more information becomes available. 

• Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force — The Tax Restructuring and Equalization Task Force wrapped up their statewide listening tour. During the summer, they visited communities around the state to hear directly from Utahns in their hometowns to receive public input about our state’s tax structure. 

One of the main questions at the town halls was ‘is sales tax rate growing?’ While sales tax revenue is growing in Utah, it is not increasing at the same rate as income tax, property tax, the economy or consumption. This creates an imbalance in our state budget to fund critical government services.

Throughout the next phase, the study phase, the task force will verify the challenge, review possible solutions and analyze opportunities to address the structural imbalance our state budget is facing. 

During the first study phase meeting at the capitol in August, the task force reviewed a few options, including reinstating the full tax on unprepared food from 1.75 percent to match the statewide sales tax of 4.85 percent sales tax on food. It would likely be coupled with a grocery tax credit to offset disproportionate burden on low-income families. This is only one of many options that will be considered throughout the next few weeks.

The next task force meeting will be held today, Sept. 5, at 4 p.m., at the capitol, to explore additional options. Continue to stay engaged throughout the process by providing feedback online at StrongerFutures.utah.gov.

• Teacher of the Year Nominees — We are fortunate to have so many wonderful teachers in Utah. Our teachers provide a vital service to the state, our communities and our families. I am grateful for the quality educators we have in our district and I am proud to share that Natalie Darrington from Juab School District, Harold Orton from North Sanpete School District, Jacob Sigafus from Alpine School District and Maben Larsen from Millard School District are all nominees for the 2020 Utah Teacher of the Year. How lucky we are to have them in our schools.

Thanks for following me along in my legislative journey. I hope to continually keep you informed about my work on The Hill – likewise, please keep in touch – I’d love to hear your insights and opinions. I can also be reached by email at rokerlund@le.utah.gov. 

I’m grateful for the opportunity you’ve given me to serve in this capacity. We live in a unique and special place. Thank you for all you do to make Utah the best state in the nation – and thanks for paying attention.

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