There is such a really proud mix of high rankings — and at the same time, there is still so much more we can do. —Natalie Gochnour, chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber

SALT LAKE CITY — A renowned business and economic analyst is warning Utah leaders against believing all the media “hype” about the state’s fiscal management.

Natalie Gochnour, chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber and associate dean at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, said she takes issue with the constant drumbeat of accolades the state has received about its economic strength that suggests the Beehive state is the “best managed state” in the nation.

While Utah has performed well economically over the years compared with other states, there is still work to do, Gochnour said.

“Utah is not the best-managed state; it is among the best-managed states,” she wrote in an op-ed piece in Sunday's Deseret News. "The entities doing the rankings have changed over time, moving from Financial World magazine in the 1990s, to the Pew Center on the States and Governing magazine in the 2000s, to 24/7 Wall Street (a financial news column) in the most recent tabulations.

"Utah ranked No. 4 in 2012, No. 6 in 2010, landed a three-way tie for No. 1 in 2008 and a two-way tie for No. 1 in 2005. Saying we are the best-managed state is convenient. It's also out-of-date and misleading,” Gochnour wrote.

The rankings stem from Utah's long history of fiscal restraint, not from any particular personality on Capitol Hill, she said.

“If we are not careful, it gets confused with leadership, creates complacency and stands in the way of needed improvements,” Gochnour wrote.

The accolades are “largely misunderstood and can be counterproductive” because they give leaders a false sense of security and accomplishment, which can lead to complacency in the long run, she said.

“We are a state that cares about governance … fiscal responsibility, and we are a state that is business-minded in the way we conduct ourselves in government, (which) shows in the 'best managed' rankings,” Gochnour said.

Speaking on KSL Newsradio’s "The Doug Wright Show" on Monday, she explained that during nearly 30 years in public policy, having served three governors and advising two others, Utah was never individually ranked as the best-managed state.

Rather than constantly tout the state’s positive rankings, Gochnour said she would like to see leaders spend more effort working to improve areas where the state falls short, such as education, the election system, tax reform and assimilating Utah's increasingly ethnically diverse population.

“We’re doing really well as a state, but we have a lot more potential,” she said. “We shouldn't let even a positive label get in the way of needed change.”

Gochnour also noted that management should not be confused with leadership. Management is the job of state employees, while leadership is the job of elected officials, she said.

In response, the governor's office said Gochnour offered a unique and valued perspective regarding Utah’s economy, according to Ally Isom, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Gary Herbert. Though accolades can be a measure of success, by no means does the governor hang his hat on them, she added.

"The governor’s vision — Utah will be the best performing economy and recognized as a premier global business destination — will only be achieved through strong leadership and sound execution by his agencies," Isom said. "That vision is undergirded by his driving education goal of 66 percent of Utah’s adults obtaining advanced education by 2020, his 10-year energy plan, and his ability to bring the right people together to tackle Utah’s challenges with Utah solutions. That kind of vision and that kind of execution will require focused, disciplined leadership."

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Gochnour said the challenge for leadership is to recognize that doing well and achieving Utah's potential are “two different things.” Becoming better would mean spending less time talking about how good Utah is and more time solving problems and investing in the future, she said.

“There is such a really proud mix of high rankings — and at the same time, there is still so much more we can do,” Gochnour said.

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