Gov. Herbert: Utah faces challenges but 'the state of our state is strong'
Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert laid out a trio of challenges facing Utah in his annual State of the State address Wednesday evening, but also offered assurances that "the state of our state is strong."
At the top of the GOP governor's list in his half-hour speech delivered in the House chambers on the third day of the 2014 Legislature was the impact of Utah's rapid population growth on education, air quality and the state's prison system.
Herbert said recommendations from his Clean Air Action Team to accelerate the transition to cleaner fuel and limit wood burning in non-attainment areas during the entire inversion season should be implemented immediately.
Although the governor said he wanted action on wood burning from the state's Air Quality Board, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the limits won't happen without legislative involvement.
Both Niederhauser and House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, have talked about the need for the state to encourage voluntary compliance with measures intended to improve the state's wintertime pollution.
Lockhart said she and other lawmakers are hearing from many constituents who burn wood to heat their homes and don't want to have to stop.
"It's not just an easy issue to say you can't do that anymore," the speaker said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, a Democrat, praised the governor "for stepping forward and proposing something that will help" but said there's more to be done to make it easier for Utahns to use mass transit.
"If the state doesn't want to do it, give us the authority to do it at the local level," Becker said.
School funding is also a challenge, the governor said in a state with a population of 2.9 million that is expected to nearly double in the next 35 years. The price tag just for new student growth alone is about $70 million a year, he said.
So the state must be more innovative with the money available, Herbert said, not mentioning tax increases. While there is a push this session to raise gas and income taxes, legislative leaders have shown little interest in doing so in an election year.
Instead, the governor cited a proposal by Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, to create a "report card" intended to help determine where schools need to improve, and other education legislation.
Also noted in his speech was the compensation increase for teachers included in his $13.3 billion budget submitted to lawmakers. He wants to increase the funding mechanism for schools — the weighted pupil unit — by $61.6 million, or 2.5 percent.
Senate Minority Assistant Whip Pat Jones, D-Holladay, said the actual pay increase for teachers that money would provide is a "drop in the bucket" because much of it will go toward covering increased benefit costs.
Still, Jones praised the governor's focus on education.
"I know that they expect us to throw darts when the governor speaks and gives us a State of the State," the Democratic leader said. "But I think it’s important that we hang together and look at the issues that are really important to Utahns."
The governor said relocating the Utah State Prison in Draper "is a discussion worth having, but it must be done in the larger context of reforming our criminal justice system as a whole."
That disappointed House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, who has complained it's taking too long to make a decision about moving the decades-old facility from Point of the Mountain.
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