SALT LAKE -- House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, says uncertainty about how the federal government will address the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff will cast the biggest shadow over the Utah Legislature this year.
In an interview with the Standard-Examiner, Lockhart said the way the federal government's fiscal issues are addressed in Washington, D.C., could pose a major challenge in how state lawmakers address the fallout during the 45-day legislative session, which began Jan. 28.
Lockhart has been rumored to be a candidate for governor, but she tried to distance herself from that discussion during a recent briefing on the Hill with the media.
"I'm focused on my job as a legislator," the Provo Republican said.
Lockhart said the biggest issue facing state officials every year is the budget, and she said funding for education is the biggest part of the challenge. Federal action on the debt could have a major impact on how state programs are funded, she said.
In her second session as the head of the 75-person House, Lockhart addressed a wide range of issues in her 25-minute interview. Topics included clean-air initiatives, immigration, political balance and the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on state politics.
The first woman ever to preside over the Utah House, Lockhart said one of the issues often brought up in addressing funding for education is the state's emphasis on building roads and economic development. She said the state's emphasis on creating jobs helps bring money for education. Without jobs, she said, the income tax base is diminished. She described a focus on growth as part of a symbiotic approach to fund education.
The speaker had no magic solutions for dealing with the inversion, which was clearly visible from her office window at the Capitol, because "God gave us the geography we have," but she noted that clean-air measures do involve more than just industrial users. Pressed on whether the state needs to extend limits to two-stroke engines or other more drastic measures, Lockhart openly expressed her hope that it won't come to that.
In her first session in presiding over the House, the issue of immigration was not a dominant topic, but she said there is a trigger date on the issue this year, which will require some action, whether it includes setting a different date to other possible changes to help the state be compliant with federal regulations.
This session, Lockhart will preside over a legislative body that is decidedly Republican. Republicans picked up three House seats in November and now have a 61-14 majority in the House. Still, Lockhart said she will push for balance and exploration of all points of view.
"We always need to hear all viewpoints," Lockhart said. She noted the House holds very few closed meetings.
Besides being a GOP majority, the majority of the Legislature is also LDS. Lockhart said the church does not have any more influence than any other group on state issues.
"Do you see a red phone here?" Lockhart joked as she scanned her office desk. She described the church as a special interest that expresses concern over some social issues such as marriage, alcohol and gaming, but said church leaders don't tell legislators what to do or not to do.
Lockhart also addressed the issue of the number of women in the Legislature. She said the question shouldn't be why aren't there more women in the Legislature, but rather why aren't more women running for office.
"Women generally get elected when they run," Lockhart said.
She said she knows she is in a unique role as the first woman to preside over the House, and feels some pressure to be a role model, but she said her biggest obligation is to the people in her district, whom she represents.