Friends and Neighbors,
As fall begins to paint its vibrant colors across our mountains and trees, we reflect on a month filled with important activities. This included convening for advice and consent on the governor's appointments, participating in our monthly interim meetings and attending our yearly long-term planning conference. Notably, this month's interim meetings marked a historic event for the Legislature. We gathered away from Capitol Hill, traveling to St. George for September interim meetings, which were held at Utah Tech University. Washington County stands not only as the fastest-growing county in the state but also in the country. We were eager to engage directly with the community to understand what makes this area exceptional and how to build on its successes, all while thoughtfully managing the impacts of unprecedented growth. Hearing from Utahns about the issues most important to them is invaluable as we prepare for the upcoming 2024 General Legislative Session, and our discussions revolved significantly around Utah's growth and water needs, two crucial topics for our state.
Below, you'll find highlights from those St. George interim meetings and other events from September. With only two more interim meetings left before the session (October and November), I encourage you to take a look at the legislative calendar and consider attending a meeting that piques your interest. You can explore our committee topics here.
This September, we proudly join the nation in celebrating Constitution Month and commemorating the foundational document that shapes our democracy. The U.S. Constitution, now over two centuries old, stands as a testament to the enduring principles of liberty, justice and equal representation. Throughout September, we have reflected on the wisdom of our Founding Fathers and reaffirmed our commitment to upholding the rights and values enshrined in this remarkable charter. It's imperative that all Americans understand the principles that are unique to our nation, including federalism, checks and balances, separation of powers, popular sovereignty and limited government. We invite you to join us in honoring this vital piece of our nation's history and continue to have engaging discussions on how we can continue to preserve and strengthen our democracy for generations to come. By dedicating a month to our nation's founding and creating a statewide celebration, we are better teaching our youth and citizens the importance of the Constitution.
St. George Interim Overview
The world comes to Southern Utah, and this month, the Legislature did as well. I had the opportunity to attend September interim meetings in St. George last week. This is the first time in recent state history that the entire Legislature has held interim meetings outside Salt Lake City. During our interim meetings, our interim legislative committees discussed many important topics. You can listen to recordings of our committee meetings using the legislative website (le.utah.gov). Southern Utah is a key part of Utah's economy. From the snowbirds who migrate here during winter months to tourism that boasts an impressive $2.6 billion in economic output because of our five National Parks and seven state parks.
As the fastest-growing county in Utah, Washington County and its neighboring areas have unique needs and interests. Making legislators more accessible to all Utah constituents allowed for a better understanding of the issues distinctive to Southern Utah and will result in better solutions for the entire state moving forward. Holding interim meetings provided a convenient platform for Southern Utahns to express the challenges in their community, and it will help all lawmakers determine how we can best solve problems in a way that will improve the quality of our government and, in turn, the caliber of our state.
Solutions that work in Salt Lake City may not work here, so having the legislators visit allowed us to see firsthand the unique problems and potential solutions implemented in this area to address issues such as exponential growth and water shortages.
We also had the opportunity to examine many of these important issues during our long-term planning conference on Tuesday. In addition to discussing the opportunities and concerns surrounding artificial intelligence, we examined water issues and transportation needs. You can find an overview of what the Legislature learned during the long-term planning conference here.
The use of generative artificial intelligence is on the rise. As exposure to and reliance on AI increases, we gathered with the tech industry and AI experts to consider the state's approach to utilizing and regulating AI. Questions surrounding advancement, risk and data privacy were discussed.
In all, Utah will seek to lead out in between fostering AI innovation and protecting privacy, security and civil liberties. As policymakers, we are committed to keeping pace with the rapid advancements in AI technology to make informed decisions while consulting leading experts in this technology.
Our Water, Our Future
As our water discussion and conservation efforts continue, we heard presentations from some of Utah's water experts from the Central Utah Water Conservancy District and the Great Salt Lake Commissioner. These presentations gave legislators an update on Utah's water and infrastructure needs, conservation wins and the environmental impact of a prolonged drought.
The Legislature has appropriated nearly one billion dollars to water conservation since 2022, and we were able to see where much of this funding has gone and how it has helped calm the drought. While statewide water infrastructure has been boosted in recent years, there is still much work to do to ensure our infrastructure can continue operating at the high levels needed for optimal conservation. This historically wet year has had an insurmountably positive impact on the lake and our state, but we must continue our conservation efforts and continue to plan for the future to ensure this extra water goes to good use.
Enhancing Quality of Life as Utah Grows
As the best economy in the nation, Utah continues to welcome individuals from many states who move to our beautiful state. As a result of our growing economy, we have seen an increased need for housing and transportation infrastructure. We had the opportunity to hear from the Utah Department of Transportation and others about the Legislature's role in helping prepare the state for continued growth.
Since 2012, the population of Utah has grown by approximately 20%. During the same time period, the number of vehicle miles traveled in Utah has increased by nearly 30%. The increase in both population and miles indicate the need for increased investment in affordable housing and transportation. The Legislature examines these issues every year, constantly looking for ways to improve the quality of life for new and old Utah residents. The discussion during the long-term planning conference centered around the growth predictions for the next several decades and will help direct legislation related to these issues during the 2024 General Session.
Increase in Teacher Salary
With the start of the school year, I am reminded of how important it is to have good teachers in Utah schools. Encouraging well-trained and compassionate teachers to teach in Utah has been a focus of the Legislature for years. We appropriated historic levels of funding to education during the 2023 General Session, a large portion of which went to raising the salary of Utah teachers. A recent article published in Deseret News highlights how our students and teachers have benefited from the Legislature's increased investment in the education system. “When we started as a district in the 2009-10 school year, our starting salary was $32,407. In 15 years, we have jumped that to $60,000.” You can read the article here.
Early Literacy Update
During the 2022 General Session, we passed a bill, S.B. 127 Early Literacy Outcomes Improvements, that aims to improve third-grade literacy by aligning existing literacy programs towards a common goal, equipping teachers and administrators with evidence-based teaching methods, placing literacy coaches in the lowest performing schools and providing resources to support parent, family and community efforts. One of the goals outlined in the bill was to have 70% of third-grade students reading on grade level by June of 2027, and we recently received an update on how the progress is coming along.
Thanks to the committed efforts of educators, parents, and the wider community, a notable transformation in students' reading and writing skills is now underway throughout the state. Among Utah's school districts, North Summit School District achieved 78.6% of third graders reading on grade level. They are followed by Rich School District (66.7%) and Wayne School District (62.5%). This is well above the overall outcome for the state, which was 48%. We applaud the many schools and districts working diligently to get our students on track and recognize the dedication of teachers and literacy coaches going above and beyond for our students. We are seeing results and tangible improvement in schools throughout the state. I am confident that with an increased focus on improving third-grade literacy scores, we are better preparing our students to take on challenges and pursue greater education opportunities.
View all the rankings here.
Utah Ranked the Happiest State in the Nation
The consensus among friends and neighbors is clear: Utah's high happiness ranking reflects the genuine satisfaction experienced by its people. In 2021, Utah first claimed the title of the happiest state in the nation, and it is with equal pride that our state has once again reclaimed the spot in 2023.
Utah recently secured the top position in the WalletHub nationwide happiness assessment.
The ranking is determined by assessing factors such as emotional and physical well-being, work environment and community and environment satisfaction. Notably, Utah excelled in the work environment and community environment categories. Additionally, I am proud that we have the highest volunteer rate in the nation, with an impressive 40.7% of Utahns actively volunteering. Furthermore, Utah has the lowest separation and divorce rate in the country.
This achievement is a source of pride for me, and I hope it will also be for you. I recognize and share my gratitude every day that our state is an exceptional place to live, work and play.
The Transportation Interim Committee received an update from the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) regarding FrontRunner's goal of increasing ridership through frequency of trains, reliability for departure/arrivals and decreasing travel time. Factors such as corridor growth, worsening I-15 conditions and improved FrontRunner service have amplified ridership growth and necessitated enhancements to the FrontRunner system.
A strategic double-track project is underway to add double-tracks in certain sections of the FrontRunner route. This will increase the system from 25% double-tracked to 50% and add 10 additional trains for increased frequency. State appropriations, Utah Transit Authority (UTA) funding and a grant from the Federal Transit Administration will assist in covering the cost of the ongoing project which will be completed by 2029.
Utah's historically wet winter, spring and summer have been a game-changer in wildfire prevention. As of this month, Utah has only experienced 687 wildfires in 2023. Although this number may seem high, it is significantly lower than the 878 fires in 2022 and the 1,060 in 2021. This success, however, hinges on the responsible use of water. As we look ahead, it's crucial that each of us continues to preserve this invaluable resource to ensure a similarly safe and protected environment in the coming years. Let's celebrate this achievement and stay committed to safeguarding our communities from wildfire risks.
No Plans for a Mask Mandate in Utah
Many of you have recently reached out to me, concerned about rumors that a mask mandate will be enforced in Utah in the coming weeks. I want to assure you that the Legislature has no intention of implementing a statewide mask mandate. As policymakers, we weigh personal freedoms and the health effects of our decisions when examining policies. Our record shows that we have rejected mandating vaccines or masks in our state. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah used a blended approach that protected lives, livelihoods and kids' education.
A study focused on states' responses to the pandemic looked at three major factors: economy, education and mortality to COVID-19. Utah ranked first on these metrics by a considerable margin. I believe we will continue to take a balanced approach to saving lives, livelihoods and kids' education while preserving personal liberties. I support individuals' right to wear or not wear masks. I have full confidence in Utahns' ability to use good judgment when making these personal choices without interference from the government.
Pending Federal Government Shutdown
Unfortunately, another national government shutdown seems likely to occur at the beginning of October. This will impact most of our lives in one way or another, particularly in Southern Utah, home of Utah's five national parks, where it could be detrimental to their livelihoods and economies.
During the federal government shutdowns in 2013 and 2018, Utah took it upon itself to keep our national parks open by temporarily funding park workers' wages. Once again, we are collaborating with the governor's office to work with the U.S. Department of the Interior to keep Utah's national parks accessible to visitors. This is necessary to prevent significant disruptions for those visiting our great state from around the world, while protecting the local economies that rely on tourism.
We recognize the significance of our national parks to local economies and the tourism industry, and we are committed to doing everything in our power to keep them open during these turbulent times.
As the seasons transition, it's time to prepare for the fast-approaching holiday season and enjoy the changing scenery. Should you have any questions or concerns, please don't hesitate to reach out.
Senator Ronald Winterton