Recently the Deseret News visited with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert as this year's legislative session closed.
At the time we met him, the furor over the troubling way the Legislature fast-tracked its change to the state's open records law (HB477) had just begun to swirl and there was a full-court press from anti-immigration advocates to derail Utah's comprehensive solution to illegal immigration.
Given the immediate issues weighing on the governor, it was reassuring to hear Herbert put these volatile issues into context.
"I have been coming to the Legislature since 1991, and even before that, when I was the President of the Utah Association of Realtors, I would come as a lobbyist. … I've seen the good, bad and the ugly of the legislative session. With each session there is always a new dynamic. Each session has its own flavor."
So although he was surprised by HB477 (see sidebar), Herbert was not surprised by the overall results from the session. And he would consider legislative assent to the overwhelming majority of his budget as one of the major accomplishments of the year. "We are going to get most of what we wanted in funding education, funding growth and minimizing cuts."
But while Utah lawmakers have been caucusing and voting, Herbert has been playing a role for the state on the national stage.
He has been negotiating with President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over common-sense waivers to outdated Medicaid practices.
He made a rare twice-in-one-day appearance before congressional committees — once to discuss concerns about changes to federal land use policy and then to discuss the unconscionable exclusion of states from health care reform.
In addition to representing the state formally in Washington D.C., Herbert is quickly becoming a favorite son at the increasingly influential Republican Governors Association (RGA).
Although much national press attention goes to Republican governors like New Jersey's Chris Christie or Wisconsin's Scott Walker as they contend with how to restructure spendthrift state governments, folks like Christie and Walker apparently look to Herbert for ideas and guidance because of Utah's strong track record.
"I've had governors look at our state and say, 'I'm a new governor and I like what I see in Utah. I want to copy how I govern in my state based on how you govern here.' I had one governor, Scott Walker, come here looking at health care and say, 'I want to incorporate the same principles on your (health care) exchange in Wisconsin.'"
"Gov. Rick Snyder from Michigan came here a year ago as he was running his campaign and said, 'I'm going to try and do the things you are doing in Utah, and that's what I'm going to make my campaign platform.'"
According to Herbert, Utah is providing national leadership in two areas of particular concern to other state governors. The first is fiscal responsibility. " We are one of eight states that has a AAA bond rating. This tells us a lot about Utah and a lot about other states."
The second is an effort to rebalance federalism. "Washington D.C. is too powerful and too encroaching. So states — and we are leading this charge in Utah — are saying let's get this back in the right balance."
Utah policy innovations that Herbert sees getting close study from other states are pension reform, Medicaid reform — and of course — immigration reform.
There is an inclusiveness tempered by realism in Herbert's approach to the issues.
"I'm not afraid to hear your comments, and maybe I'll learn something," he said. "I'll try to convince you why my point of view is right, and you can tell me why I'm wrong. At the end of the day, a decision has to be made. But I'm willing to get input; that is healthy."
When asked about how intense positions held by a minority of Utahns, such as enforcement-only immigration policies, can be amplified through Utah's singular nomination process, Herbert responded, "I support the delegate system even though right now it makes it a little more difficult for my life. There are pros and cons to any system. It also allowed a relatively unknown guy like me to play in a big time political game. … It doesn't just play to the rich and the famous as a general primary election would. You take the good with the bad."
Friendship, trust and honor are important to Herbert. Throughout our discussion he was quick to note his personal relationships with other governors, with Utah's congressional delegation, with leaders in Utah's House and Senate. He noted the importance of keeping commitments and adjusting based on how others react on a personal level.
"A lot of this is networking — do I trust you, do you trust me. We need to develop policy, but there will always be an honest difference of opinions, even among Republicans."
Herbert is nationally recognized for governing one of the most fiscally responsible states in the nation. His candor, inclusiveness and unvarnished recognition of the complexity of issues is refreshing — even disarming. Only in a state held hostage by an arcane nominating system that intensifies fringe preferences would such a popularly elected governor be made an offender for signing popular legislation and bargaining to modify unpopular legislation.
Paul Edwards is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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