Governor Gary Herbert issued his eighth “state of the State” address on Wednesday, Jan 25 with his figurative view from the top of Arsenal Hill. The Utah House of Representatives chamber filled with the state’s legislators and their families to hear the annual status speech which lasted just under thirty minutes. The governor was able to discuss his view that “the state of the State is truly exceptional,” while giving the credit to “the hard work and cooperation of the people of Utah.”
In the address, Governor Herbert spoke of the summits that he expects to climb with the help of the legislature, currently convened in its 62nd session which will adjourn on March 9 at midnight. Among the challenges he expects to take on are educational development, air quality, and Utah’s scourge of drug addiction and homelessness. On the latter
On the latter point he received his first standing ovation, describing these problems as “deep and shadowy valleys” needing to be crossed to alleviate suffering by the significant numbers involved with these social ills. Calling upon the House to “engage with and monitor local efforts,” the problem currently experienced in urban Utah and especially Salt Lake City, is often quietly referred to as Utah’s “dirty little secret,” one which is often avoided by those working with travel and tourism, technology, and aerospace as well as other economic development sectors. Herbert praised the effort by Utah’s House Speaker Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper), to take the issue of homelessness and drug addiction in the state of Utah “head on,” allowing Utahns to raise their expectations on government solutions to this crisis. Many believe that the problems are too firmly rooted to be resolved in one session and will be watching for initiatives appropriating specific monies to site-specific shelters and social service-type solutions rather than through massive law enforcement response and incarceration.
Herbert also spoke of the 43,000 new jobs that were created since his last state of the State address a year ago. Critics are quick to point out that many of those jobs would best benefit from a raise in the minimum wage, a proposal that the governor dismisses by emphasizing personal educational initiative. Many of Utah’s political minority believe that the Governor’s administration and its policies, (specifically originating in his office of Economic Development), in tandem with legislators sponsored by special corporate interests, all favor their corporate sponsors. Representative Brian King (Democrat – Salt Lake City) the minority leader in Utah’s House, responded to the Governor’s remarks by saying that “Corporations are not people, in that they don’t have to make a car payment or send their children to college, nor do they have to balance a household budget,” sometimes with two people in the home working three of those 43,000 new jobs. “The state of Utah,” King said, “is already doing well in the business world, but its people could benefit from a living wage. Our state government too often ignores their needs.”
On education, the governor unveiled a program called “Talent Ready Utah,” which he said was designed to “accelerate” successes as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “known as the nation’s report card.” His current education advisor, Tami Pyfer will partner his office of economic development’s efforts with the Utah State Board of Education, “to expand career opportunities statewide by increasing the number of “business and education partnerships.” To this end, Herbert described a pilot program called “Utah Aerospace Pathways,” involving Utah companies such as Autoliv, Boeing, Hexcel, Albany Engineered Composites, and Orbital ATK. His prime example was hired out of high school in an entry-level capacity in this growing industry. Summer internships for Utah’s youth are the focus of this area of education and workplace development. “Talent Ready Utah will help fill 40,000 new, high-skill, high-paying jobs over the next four years,” said Herbert.
Pointing to the need for increased education funding for the fastest growing student population in the nation, Herbert admitted that the state has “significant funding needs just to accommodate the growth.” Particularly sensitive to those who know that Utah ranks dead last nationally in per-pupil spending, most Republicans in the country and the Beehive State regard tax increases as the third rail of American politics and Utah is no different. So Herbert, who often refers to the state’s “economic engine” as one that is finely tuned, reiterated the indirect relationship of economic growth to increased tax funds and, therefore, higher per-pupil spending. The idea is that if the state’s economy is “humming right along,” then more tax revenues are available without placing the burden on individuals and families.
Additionally, Herbert spoke of “owed but unpaid use taxes” amounting to “approximately $150 million to $200 million per year and rising” for Utah – an area that the Governor also wants to see resolved in order to avoid a larger tax burden for Utah’s citizens. He placed the challenge of addressing this fiscal discrepancy with the state’s legislators, “If Congress won’t do its job,” he said, “I look to… the legislature and with members of our private sector to improve significantly the fairness and equity of our [State] tax system — while maintaining Utah’s number-one business-friendly environment.”
In post-address remarks by Utah’s opposing minority, Senate Minority Leader, Gene Davis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) said that he couldn’t recall any Utah governor publicly addressing the subject of alcohol and the pertinent laws in a state where much of the citizens adhere to religious and cultural prohibitions on alcohol consumption. Herbert referred to the ongoing controversies and debates involving the Hospitality Association and the so-called “Zion Curtain” – a law prohibiting beverages to be prepared in view of restaurant patrons, especially minors.
“For the past several months, we have been working closely together [with Representative Brad Daw (Republican – Orem) and Senator Jerry Stevenson (Republican – Layton)] to evaluate our existing laws governing alcohol dispensing, licensing prevention, education, and enforcement,” Herbert said. The state has no privately owned liquor sales outlets and the present laws are a patchwork of prior efforts to maintain the state’s wholesome image and consumption control. Most of the seats on the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control are filled with active Mormons, who, as part of their religion, do not consume the product they are to be controlling. Some residents say that reform is way overdue in the midst of craft breweries, distilleries, and related commercial enterprise within the Beehive State. Herbert (a Mormon himself) said that he wanted to be certain that efforts in this area prove to “further reduce underage drinking, alcohol abuse and impaired driving.”
Accompanying the Governor and the state’s First Lady, Jeanette, was Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox and his wife, Abby. The Lieutenant Governor, a native of rural Utah himself, has been charged with achieving the goal of 25,000 new jobs in the 25 rural counties in Utah, many of which are struggling to keep up with mandated property tax increases (due to balanced budget requirements coupled with declining county revenues). Herbert said that he’d work with the legislature and his “Rural Partnership Board,” to meet that job creation target.
“Another issue that worries me… is our air quality,” said Herbert. He stressed progress evidenced by a 600,000 person increase in Utah’s population over the past twelve years while “total statewide emissions declined by 30 percent.” None of this is of much consolation to the activists ready for further evidence in the wintertime inversions along the Wasatch Front, a problem plaguing other metropolitan areas across the globe. The state will be collecting almost $35 million from the massive Volkswagen settlement, most of which Herbert would like earmarked for solutions such as emission-reduced school buses. Additionally, getting refineries in the state to adopt emission-control technologies, expanding mass transit, “encouraging the construction of more energy efficient buildings,” and “making inroads to alternative energy,” all areas of new emphasis in a state where fossil fuels still allow for most of the energy exports and dependent economy.
Closing the speech and completing his analogy with a shoutout to Utahn Greg Paul, the founder of the Momentum climbing gyms in Northern Utah, the Governor acknowledged the perseverance of this outdoorsman who recently summited Mt. Everest. Mr. Paul did so as the recipient of two artificial, high-tech knees, manufactured by Ortho Development of Draper, the first American to summit the tallest place on earth in three years and the first to do so with his artificial knee prosthetics.
“As a state, we have daunting summits ahead,” said Herbert, “Like Greg Paul, it may take years of planning and preparation to reach our goal… I am exhilarated by the challenge because I have never been more optimistic about Utah’s prospects for success. I invite all of you to join me in this effort. May God bless us as we, together, climb ever higher.”