Gov. Gary Herbert must be the envy of many other governors who, as he did Wednesday, will be delivering a state of the state address this year. The combined deficits of 44 states plus the District of Columbia total more than $125 billion, by some estimates, and some conservative thinkers have wondered out loud whether it's time to change federal law to allow states to declare bankruptcy.
By comparison, Utah has few worries. It has a structural deficit projected to be $272 million, but the state already has dealt effectively with pension reform, the Sword of Damocles that hangs over many states' long-term recovery prospects. It has viable options for closing that gap without raising taxes or severely cutting too many programs. And it consistently finds itself ranked among the top-rated places to do business, including a recent top ranking on a Forbes poll.
Much of what the governor said Wednesday — about education as a top priority, the need to remain energy independent, the creation of a Utah World Trade Center and the state's determination to resist federal mandates, including those of the new health-care reform law — are laudable. Some areas, however, could use a dose of perspective.
The governor continues to promote the goal of his Education Excellence Commission, which is to have 66 percent of the state's adults with a postsecondary degree or certification by 2020. That is simply unrealistic. While the goal assumes the retention of many more students who currently drop out of college, it would require registering more than twice as many students than the state expects in natural growth in the next decade, and it would mean $1.2 billion in added higher education costs (in 2008 dollars) and perhaps much more in capital needs. Perhaps an audacious goal will lead the state to improvements that fall short but are still important. The fear is it will be shelved because it is unattainable.
We agree with the governor's desire for "substantive debate of whether there is a place for nuclear energy in Utah." Nuclear power has to be a component of the nation's energy strategy for an environmentally conscious future. However, it's doubtful whether the state can sustain such a venture. Rocky Mountain Power's parent company recently abandoned efforts to build a nuclear plant in Idaho for reasons that may be relevant here.
The governor also touched on immigration reform, sure to be a hot-button issue at this year's legislative session. We were pleased to hear him emphasize the need for civil dialog, respect and reason as lawmakers craft legislation. Immigration clearly is a federal issue, but Congress seems unwilling to deal with it, and states feel forced to take action.
However, we were disappointed the governor didn't mention the Utah Compact, a declaration that urges a set of common values and humane principles to govern immigration reform, which was signed by many civic and religious leaders. The Democrats' response to the governor's speech did mention support for this important document. We hope it becomes a defining guideline for whatever sort of law emerges.
Overall, however, Herbert sounded a lot of right notes in his first state of the state as a governor in his own right. Utah's basic strategy of careful, if sometimes unpopular, governing and budgeting will ensure a strong recovery from tough economic times.