As we begin a new year, I remain honored to serve you in the U.S. Senate, where your ideas inspire me to work toward solutions that will improve the lives of Utahns and all Americans. Divided government, while challenging, also presents an opportunity for both parties to find common ground. And I’m pleased to provide an update about the progress we’ve made on many issues important to Utah over the past year.
Soon after I took office, final negotiations took place regarding a package of legislation dealing with management of our federal lands — including those in Utah. The result of years of collaboration between Utah county commissioners and local ranchers, recreationists and conservationists, the bill created 240,000 acres of wilderness and 248,000 acres of recreation areas, consolidated Utah trust lands that will generate millions in revenue for our school kids, and authorized land transfers to meet local needs.
Former Sen. Hatch, along with Congressmen Bishop and Curtis, worked hard on this legislation for many years, and I was pleased to help bring this measure over the finish line. But our work is not done. Partnering with Sen. Lee, I’m backing a bill to require the approval of state legislatures in order to designate national monuments. And I am continuing to push for more local control and input over how public lands are managed.
The past year also saw progress on other Utah priorities — including increased funding for management of the wild horse and burro population on rangelands, wildfire suppression and prevention resources, and reauthorization of programs that support essential services and schools in our rural counties.
Like many of you, I’ve been alarmed by the increase in vaping related lung illnesses — including 125 cases in Utah — and statistics indicating that 5 million kids are now vaping regularly. This fall, I introduced the Ending New Nicotine Dependencies Act, which bans flavors, ensures that vaping cartridges are tamper-proof, and bans e-cigarettes from our schools. In December, the president signed into law the Tobacco 21 Act, which I helped introduce, to raise the federal minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21. Congress also enacted a requirement for HHS to take steps toward ensuring vape cartridges are tamper-proof.
Utah is one of the only states in the nation where births are outpacing the mortality rate. Growing families are a blessing — but they are also expensive. The majority of working parents don’t get paid when they take time off from work after the birth or adoption of a child, which can mean depleted savings, credit card debt or student loan defaults. As debate continues over the best solution, I joined Sen. Rubio, R-Florida, on a proposal to allow new parents to use a portion of their Social Security for paid parental leave. It gives families flexibility on how to use their benefits, without adding to the national debt, imposing new taxes, or creating a new entitlement program.
During recent negotiations over tax legislation, Sen. Bennet, D-Colorado, and I saw an opportunity to provide significant tax relief to more moms and dads across the country. We offered a compromise plan that would have extended and reformed the child tax credit and permanently repealed the medical device tax, among other provisions. By making the child tax credit fully refundable, the proposal would especially help parents handle the costs of raising children, while still encouraging work as the benefit phases higher alongside income.
This plan didn’t become law, but it could serve as a path forward for future conservative pro-family, pro-child tax policy. And there’s still good news for Utah’s medical device companies, which employ thousands of workers — Congress permanently repealed the medical device tax at the end of the session.
With ever-increasing challenges to our national security interests, it is imperative that America promote peace through strength as the leader of the free world. Addressing the threat that China poses to our fundamental values of freedom, human rights, and free enterprise is the principal challenge facing us in the 21st century. I’ve worked with colleagues on both sides of the aisle on a holistic strategy to combat this threat. The annual defense bill included my provision to ensure Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. is not removed from the current list of sanctioned companies until it no longer poses a national security threat. I’m also pushing the Senate to act on legislation requiring the U.S. to partner with our allies on a unified approach to address the rise of China.
A critical part of our “peace through strength” strategy is maintaining our nuclear deterrent, and Hill Air Force Base plays a vital role in maintaining and updating our missile defense system. Hill also helps repair and maintain America’s fleet of F-35s, and I was pleased to support funding this year for nuclear deterrent modernization efforts and an additional 98 F-35s.
Strengthening ourselves abroad also means strengthening ourselves here at home. Our nation’s debt is nearly $23 trillion — we’re spending nearly one trillion more dollars per year than we’re taking in. Increasingly, the burden of interest payments will fall on the American taxpayer. Most of our federal spending is automatic. Namely, our entitlement programs and trust funds: Social Security, Medicare, our Highway Trust Fund and the like.
Without action, these trust funds will be facing insolvency within 13 years — forcing either steep benefit cuts or drastic tax hikes. I’ve teamed up with a bipartisan group of senators on the Trust Act, which would task Congress with crafting plans to rescue and preserve endangered federal trust funds.
Those are just some of the important highlights from this past year, and more work remains to be done — to lower health care and prescription drug costs, strengthen our national security and return decision-making power from Washington bureaucrats back to Utah, especially when it comes to our public lands. I will keep fighting for these principles on your behalf.
I look forward to seeing you in 2020 at one of the town hall meetings I hold regularly, and I encourage you to share your views by email, letter or phone — which you can do through my website. Best wishes to you and your family for a joyful, prosperous new year.