The Utah State Legislature kicks off with a lawsuit threat against Big Pharma

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah State Legislature convened on Monday with lawmakers pledging to tackle a nearly $17 billion dollar budget and more than a thousand pieces of legislation.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said taxes will be a big topic. Lawmakers were still assessing the overall impact of the federal tax reform bill passed by Congress.

Crime scene tape is used to reserve seats in the House gallery ahead of the opening of the 2018 Utah State Legislature. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

"At least what we would initially look at is a revenue neutral. But we may look at a tax cut depending on what the federal reform does for us," he said of the impact to Utahns.

At least some of the more than 1,200 bills requested so far will be an effort to ward off citizen ballot initiatives on education, medical marijuana, voting and health care.

Education will be the top spending priority, Governor Gary Herbert said.

"Our number one budget priority in fact will be education. Nearly three out of every four new dollars will be going into education," the governor told reporters on Monday.

In his remarks to the Utah State Legislature, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, praised the hard work his colleagues have done in addressing homelessness and called on them to get tough on opioids.

"We need, in my opinion, to create a liability or an accountability for those that have produced these drugs as we see the carnage that has been created," Speaker Hughes said.

He threatened a lawsuit against "Big Pharma" that is similar to the Big Tobacco lawsuits that yielded billions for states. Recently, the House Speaker has been in disagreement with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes about how to proceed. The attorney general has favored a multi-state litigation effort that could yield a settlement before a lawsuit is ever filed; the Speaker wants Utah to forge on alone.

In a surprise announcement from the House floor, Speaker Hughes revealed he'd gotten an agreement from Reyes about going ahead with a lawsuit.

"In recent conversations with our attorney general, I want to thank him as he has decided Utah will step forward," the Speaker announced.

That appeared to take Reyes by surprise. In a meeting with reporters from his office on the other end of the Capitol, the attorney general insisted they would pursue multi-state litigation first. However, he said he did agree to put out a bid for outside counsel in case that falls apart.

"We wanted to have the gun loaded figuratively, really to pull the trigger on a lawsuit," Reyes said.

Lawmakers did address bills on Monday afternoon. Most notably, Senate Bill 27 passed unanimously. It allows people in dating relationships to get protective orders. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, was run in response to the murders of Memorez Rackley and her 6-year-old son, Jase.