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Rep. Greg Hughes was elected Thursday as the new speaker of the Utah House, promising to bring energy and transparency to the position and to be inclusive of all of the viewpoints in the body.
"Being a House member and being able to be engaged in this is the honor of my life, and I'm just grateful to be here," Hughes said. "I don't think it's completely sunk in."
Hughes, a Pittsburgh native who lives in Draper, was first elected to the House in 2002. He manages apartments and construction projects.
A one-time amateur boxer and fight promoter, his reputation at the Capitol is one of a laid-back wise-cracker to friends and allies, and a pugnacious street-brawler willing to mix it up with opponents.
Hughes, who is currently the House majority whip, beat out House Majority Leader Brad Dee, and former House Speaker Mel Brown in the vote among his colleagues to replace House Speaker Becky Lockhart, who is retiring.
The Republican caucus held the vote Thursday in a closed-door meeting. The vote tallies were not announced.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, who recently led the investigation of former Attorney General John Swallow, was selected by the caucus as the new House majority leader. Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, was elected House majority whip, and Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, was selected as assistant whip.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who was re-elected Thursday to his leadership post, said he got to know Hughes when Niederhauser first ran for the Senate in 2006, since their districts overlap.
"We became instant friends, and I have appreciated him over the years," Niederhauser said. "He's an energetic and dynamic person."
Republican senators retained the rest of their leadership team, with Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, running unopposed. Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, won re-election as majority whip and Sen. Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City, was chosen once again as assistant whip.
Hughes served as chairman of the board of the Utah Transit Authority during several tumultuous years for the agency until his he stepped down in September.
One of the top priorities in both the House and Senate will be digesting competing proposals on whether to expand Medicaid to cover more low-income Utahns. Gov. Gary Herbert has reached an agreement in principle with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to cover the poorest Utahns and subsidize insurance for those up to 138 percent of the poverty level.
But Republican legislators in both the House and Senate are wary of the long-term cost of the proposal.
Hughes said he plans to draw on the expertise of Dunnigan, who owns an insurance agency, and Gibson, who is a health care administrator, as well as four physicians in the Legislature to inform the decision-making.
"You're going to see that expertise, that citizen Legislature and the areas they understand," Hughes said. "We're really going to drill down on [Medicaid] with the guiding principle being that we do right by our constituents."
In 2013, Hughes sponsored legislation expanding campaign finance reporting, requiring nonprofits and corporations to disclose money spent independently on races in response to so-called "dark money" that was used to oust Rep. Brad Daw.
He led the creation of the Prison Relocation and Development Authority in 2011, sponsoring legislation that brought about the commission to study the relocation of the Utah State Prison in Draper, which is in his district. The group is currently considering options for the construction of a new prison.
He sponsored legislation in 2009 that did away with Utah's requirements that bars and taverns be private clubs and required establishments to scan patrons' identification.
Throughout his legislative career, he has been a proponent of education reform, supporting charter schools, pushing for student testing and backing other conservative educational reform efforts.
In 2008, Hughes was the subject of an ethics complaint that alleged he attempted to bribe a colleague to support school vouchers, had strong-armed lobbyists into backing the voucher movement and of intimidating political opponents.
At the time, Hughes called it a politically motivated hatchet job timed on the eve of the election. After hearing seven days of testimony, the House Ethics Committee exonerated Hughes, although it wrote a reprimand to Hughes for conduct "unbecoming of a member of the Utah House of Representatives."
Hughes said he was changed by the process and is a different person than he was then. "I've learned a lot in my time here," he said.
Dunnigan was first elected in 2002. He has been the body's point man on health reform issues, especially the implementation of the Affordable Care Act better known as Obamacare.
In the summer of 2013, Lockhart asked Dunnigan to chair the House Investigative Committee, looking into allegations of corruption against Swallow. The $4 million probe concluded that Swallow had hung a "For Sale" sign on the office.
Dunnigan expressed concerns about the flood of bills passed in the last days of the session.
"From my perspective, I think a little more deliberative process would serve us better and we'd have a better understanding of the policies created," Dunnigan said. He said he expects there could be some rule changes to prevent the last-minute rush.
Gibson, who was first elected in 2008, also served on the committee that investigated Swallow. He is an administrator with Intermountain Health Care. Last session, Gibson worked closely with Lockhart on a proposal to put a digital learning device in the hands of every Utah student. The bill ultimately failed due to its hefty price tag.
Wilson is the president of Destination Homes and was elected to the House four years ago. He is currently the vice-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee and is the chairman of the prison relocation committee.