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Utah Legislature: Gov. Gary Herbert listens, compromises in first session as governor

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 7:16 a.m. MDT

Gov. Gary Herbert, center, with his chief of staff Jason Perry, left, talks with Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden, during the last day of the Legislature Thursday. (T.j. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News) Gov. Gary Herbert, center, with his chief of staff Jason Perry, left, talks with Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden, during the last day of the Legislature Thursday. (T.j. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — It might have been his first session as governor, but the relationship between Gov. Gary Herbert and lawmakers was a comfortable fit all around.

Herbert, who took over the office last summer when former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. became U.S. ambassador to China, was already a familiar face to most legislators, especially his fellow conservatives.

A longtime Utah County commissioner before becoming the more moderate Huntsman's lieutenant governor in 2004, Herbert had spent years building relationships in the Republican Party.

Those paid off this session for Herbert, who faces a special election this November for the remaining two years of Huntsman's term.

While the state's hefty budget shortfall meant Herbert had to compromise on increasing the cigarette tax and slightly cutting the public education budget, he did so without any nasty battles with his fellow Republicans, who hold the majority in both the House and Senate.

In the last hours of the session, Herbert quietly brokered a deal in a last-minute battle between the House and the Senate over a controversial new charter school funding formula. He went upstairs to Senate President Michael Waddoups' office to privately persuade lawmakers to pull out what he called a "monkey wrench" in the public education budget bill.

Even his veto of a GOP bill criminalizing illegal abortions came as a result of working out a deal to have an alternative bill passed that toned down legally questionable language. And after expressing concern over potential court costs, Herbert signed another bill asserting the state's authority over the federal government.

Smiling and relaxed on the last day of the Legislature, Herbert credited a combination of collaboration and common sense for the lack of contention usually felt during Huntsman's time as governor.

"I've been around long enough that what you see is what you get. I'm kind of meat and potatoes and they know what I am. There's no surprise salad there," Herbert told the Deseret News. "I'm like a comfortable pair of shoes."

And those shoes, the governor said, are moving in the same direction as most Utahns, including lawmakers.

"We are a right-of-center state. We are conservative. And that's reflected in our Legislature," he said. "That's kind of the way I see things, too, so we ought to feel comfortable."

Herbert got high marks from his fellow Republicans.

"I'd grade him as an A. A solid A. He came in with principles and he stuck with them," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City.

What Herbert brings to the job, Jenkins said, is the ability to be a team player. Take the governor's weekly meetings with legislative leadership, for example.

Herbert is "genuinely interested" in what the majority legislative leaders are doing, Jenkins said, asking questions and engaging them in discussions.

"When it was Huntsman, he'd tell us what we were going to do. We thought he was awfully confident," the Senate majority leader said. "We had a fair amount of tension with him."

House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said he's heard more from Herbert this session than the past three governors combined.

"I think it demonstrates his active engagement," Clark said.

And House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said the governor is "just a guy who's easy to talk to. He's always accessible. He listens." Has Garn found anything that he doesn't like about Herbert? "Nothing yet," he said.

Even Democrats said they got along well with Herbert. Despite their different political philosophies, Democrats said he let them make their case.

"I think the governor has done a good job of making sure Democrats had that opportunity," Senate Minority Whip Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said.

But it wasn't all smooth sailing for Herbert this session. His chief rival in the governor's race, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, a Democrat, held numerous campaign press conferences at the Capitol.

"I've tried not to be distracted," Herbert said. He's waiting until after the session ends to formally announce his own candidacy.

"There's plenty of time for us down the road to debate the issues and do the campaigning part of what we have to do in politics," the governor said. "I'm looking forward to that engagement, at the appropriate time."

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