SALT LAKE CITY — Not only is the state in outstanding shape, Utahns themselves "have never been stronger," Gov. Gary Herbert pronounced Wednesday in his annual State of the State address.
The governor twice cited the outpouring of support for fallen Unified police officer Doug Barney, urging Utahns to, in his honor, "commit ourselves as a state to show greater respect and appreciation" for law enforcement.
In a half-hour speech broadcast live, Herbert said he has "never been more proud to call Utah home" after seeing Utahns "saluting one of our own" along the motorcade route for Barney's funeral.
"Yes, the state of our state has never been stronger. But as I watched Utahns mourn together, I realized something more important. I realized the state of our state is strong because the state of our people has never been stronger," he said.
Herbert's annual address touched on familiar topics: the economy, education, air quality, health care and public lands. No big initiatives were announced, but the governor stressed the need for Utah to keep improving.
Both Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said the speech contained no surprises and they liked what they heard from their fellow Republican.
"I think it shows that the Legislature and the governor align with each other on 95 percent of the issues," Niederhauser said. "The reality is, is we're going to disagree. But we shouldn't let the 5 percent rule our feelings."
Although 2016 is an election year for the governor, as well as most lawmakers, Hughes said the speech was "measured" and statesmanlike, avoiding "maybe cheap politics or a hope to try to gain some points here or there."
The governor asked lawmakers to "do something entirely different" this session by shrinking the size of state laws rather than adding to them, promising his administration would be a willing partner.
The state can't wait, he said, "to conclude that many laws are now onerous and unnecessary. We must streamline government today to allow the 21st century economy to continue growing uninhibited by outdated laws, rules and regulations."
Herbert announced that he will repeal 52 executive orders issued by Utah governors deemed "no longer necessary" following a review of every order issued since statehood.
Without mentioning President Barack Obama by name, Herbert said the nation has a president "who thinks it's OK to bypass Congress and create laws by executive order," promising he would not do the same in Utah.
He touted Utah's economy, noting that in nine of the past 12 months, the state has had the nation's highest job growth creation while income inequality is low and wage growth is up.
But the governor also said the state's economic strengths do not extend into some rural areas, asking the Legislature to focus on infrastructure development to meet the needs of entrepreneurs.
Democrats, who earlier in the day laid out their legislative priorities for the state, including raising the minimum wage, said more needs to be done.
“We’ve got families who are struggling to make ends meet because although our employment rate is low and we’ve created jobs, many times they’re not good paying jobs,” said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.
On education, the governor said one of the defining moments of his administration that began in 2009 came last year, when spending for schools was increased more than a half-billion dollars.
Herbert thanked members of the Legislature for what was one of the largest-ever education appropriations and issued a challenge to raise graduation rates in the state, now at 84 percent, to 90 percent in the next four years.
And he spoke of the ability to of education to lift Utahns from poverty, saying, "it is education, not entitlement, that creates the opportunity for self-reliance," making education the most important investment that can be made in Utah's future.
Because environmental challenges "won't be solved with hyperbole or misinformation," Herbert said he will continue to push for Utah refineries to produce cleaner Tier 3 fuels and find long-term solutions to developing water resources.
Tesoro has already agreed to make the transition to Tier 3 fuels, he said.
The governor did not refer to Medicaid expansion by name but said health care must still be addressed. Lawmakers have rejected his attempts to use the hundreds of millions of dollars available for Medicaid expansion under Obama's health care law.
Herbert blamed the federal government for dumping the issue of providing health care to low-income residents "at the feet of the states" but said there's an option other than speaking out "in defiance" or ignoring the problem.
"Or we can roll up our sleeves and work together to actually do something. My friends in the Legislature, it is time to find a solution," he said, noting that "too many Utahns work hard and still have no health care coverage."
Niederhauser said he believes there will be action on a more limited plan this session. Hughes said House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, is "working very hard for those that are most vulnerable."
But, Hughes said, the challenge is going to be building "coalitions to see that we do right by people that need greater access to health care." He said that will be difficult if there "is nothing but contempt" for the Legislature's past decisions on the issue.
Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, expressed dissatisfaction at the way the governor addressed health care.
“He could have stood behind some of the things that we’ve done and not put the blame at the feds' feet, but challenge the Legislature to give him something better than what they have done in the past,” Davis said.
Herbert called himself an enthusiastic supporter of the public lands initiative backed in Congress by Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, along with Sen. Mike Lee, all R-Utah.
"I believe these are critical steps to help resolve this long-standing conflict and improve our self-reliance," the governor said. He did not specifically mention the lawsuit against the federal government being discussed by legislators.
But with a federal government that Herbert said "still controls and mismanages too much of our backyard" and the "daily threat" of a presidential monument declaration, he was encouraged by the work of lawmakers.
Niederhauser said he believes the governor didn't address the lawsuit recommended by a legislative commission expected to cost as much as $14 million because "there's some mixed feelings still within the Legislature."
Herbert began his speech to a packed House chamber by lauding the accomplishments of two former governors who recently passed away, Norm Bangerter and Olene Walker.
Their families were in attendance, along with two Utahns highlighted in the speech, Roland Christensen, an entrepreneur in Fayette, Sanpete County, and Mellowdey Trueblood, a single mother from Ogden who went back to school to escape poverty.
Contributing: Emily Larson