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.
"I wished he would have been a little bit stronger," Dee said. "I would like to see us move more rapidly."
Second on Herbert's list was what he called asserting Utah's "rightful role as a sovereign state" on defining marriage, expanding Medicaid and managing the public lands now under federal control.
But, the governor said, the state is being hindered by federal overreach.
Referring to last month's decision by a federal judge striking down Utah's voter-approved constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, he said Utah will "do everything in our power to represent the will of the people."
However, the governor called for civility on the issue and received a prolonged standing ovation from the legislators, state officials and community leaders gathered in the chamber for the speech.
"Let me be clear that while I support traditional marriage and will continue to defend Amendment 3, there is no place in our society for hatred and bigotry," Herbert said.
The governor once again said there needs to be help for the 60,000 Utahns who live below the poverty line but are not covered under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, unless the state agrees to expand Medicaid coverage.
Herbert said he looks forward to working with lawmakers "to create a Utah model for fixing this hole in the safety net," even though Lockhart said in her address to the House on the session's opening day she opposed any expansion of Medicaid.
The speaker, who was widely seen as critical of the governor for his recently announced position on Medicaid expansion and other issues, said she heard some encouraging words from Herbert on Wednesday.
"He talked a lot about a Utah solution, which is where I am," said Lockhart, a potential challenger to Herbert in 2016. Just what that means is yet to be seen, she said.
Niederhauser said it will be difficult to finalize a plan before the 45-day session ends in late March, especially since any proposal will likely need federal approval.
And, he said, the governor still has offered few specifics.
"It may not happen in this session because there's a lot of work to be done," the Senate president said. "There's a lot of meat to put on that bone."
An issue where GOP lawmakers and the governor agree is public lands.
House Republicans are talking about taking over the nearly two-thirds of the state's lands now under federal control. The governor said more effective management of those lands is critical.
He cited Utah's successful effort to reopen its national parks during last year's federal government shutdown by sending the money needed back to Washington, D.C.
"As the opening of our national parks proved, Utah is in the best position to optimize the use of our public lands," Herbert said.
Dee said he believes the governor was reaching out to lawmakers. Some House members have privately expressed concerns that their relationship with the governor may have been damaged by the speaker's recent criticisms.
"I think the governor sent a message to us tonight that he is willing to work very, very closely with us and he understands how critical this issue is to us right now," the House majority leader said.
Herbert told a reporter after the speech that he's always been "very willing to work with anybody and everybody" and that while he's a conservative in principle, his tone is moderate.
"What I do has nothing to do with the speaker or anybody else. I’m doing what I think is right as the governor of the state, governing all the people," he said during a post-speech reception in the rotunda.
Third on the governor's list of challenges was continuing to expand the state's economy. Although he seldom gives a speech without mentioning Utah's national recognition as one of the best-managed states, that wasn't mentioned Wednesday night.
"Utah is doing very well, but the demand for more and higher-quality jobs continues," the governor said, announcing a goal to increase Utah's exports by $9 billion by the end of 2015.
There is a reason, Herbert said, that businesses like Boeing call their Utah workers the "Can-Do Team."
"The reason is not because we don't have challenges. The reason is because we know how to overcome them," he said, urging his audience to "remain committed to making (the state) even stronger."
Contributing: Madeleine Brown
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