Since announcing my candidacy for governor, I have had the honor of meeting thousands of Utahns from all walks of life and all areas of this state. The message I hear again and again is the same — Utah needs strong leadership, particularly in education, jobs and health care.
Utah needs a way out of the bottom in financing public education. This isn't just about being in last place in per pupil spending, declining high school graduation rates or plummeting math and reading scores. It isn't about numbers. It is about people: students in overcrowded classrooms; Utahns who have dropped out of school; and parents who worry about a child who is unchallenged or isn't making the grade. Everyone deserves better from our state.
Gov. Gary Herbert may say education has been his No. 1 priority, but the facts don't bear him out. State leaders have systematically underfunded our schools since the early 1990s. We need $2.2 billion now just to reach "average" in per pupil spending. And we need $391 million just to move from last to second to last place in funding.
In the first 120 days of my administration, I will present a plan to the people of Utah that moves us from 50th to 30th in per-pupil funding over the next four years. The governor has had his chance to move us out of last place during his term of office. It's time for new leadership.
Additionally, I will put in place 16 new initiatives outlined in my educational policy paper that will improve student achievement and restore pride in our teaching profession.
In the past three years, there has been a net increase of just 3,153 jobs in our state. Those are the brutal facts. The governor can hype his figures, but these come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Herbert tells Utahns that things are fine. The economic picture is rosy, but Utahns know better.
We have relatives, friends and neighbors who are underemployed, under water in their mortgages or cutting back on basics just to get by. Today, Utah families bring home $1,150 less than they did in 1997, 133,000 Utahns have dropped out of the labor force because they can't find work, and our wages are failing seventh fastest in the nation. We need leadership that doesn't ignore the economic mess we're in, and, more importantly, that gets us moving forward again.
Moreover, instead of giving away $646 million in tax incentives to lure out of state businesses to Utah, I will channel incentives to our small business sector that accounts for 97 percent of Utah employers. My economic plan, Utah 1, will build Utah's state economy from the bottom-up and the middle-out through regional meetings with county officials, private-public partnerships and proper funding of programs like USTAR.
Intermountain Health Care is a national model for health care delivery. Our doctors, nurses and hospital staff lead the nation in quality of care. But working-class Utahns aren't getting much help from state government. The Utah Exchange program is too expensive for the average Utahn to join. And the governor opposes expanding Medicaid coverage, which would help about 50,000 uninsured Utahns. As governor, I will join with the Utah Medical Association and the Utah Citizens' Counsel — that includes former Gov. Olene Walker and former Gov. Jon Huntsman's health care adviser John T. Nielsen — in supporting Medicaid expansion, a policy that, for a 10-year investment of $250 million, will return $3.6 million to Utah.
Our state is at a crossroads. We need decisive leadership. We are also facing an unprecedented deluge of state audits that have exposed mismanagement, conflicts of interests, flawed bidding and questionable payoffs, improprieties, and the biggest identity theft in Utah's history. As governor, I know what leadership means — making tough decisions to improve the lives of all Utahns. On Nov. 6, I ask for your vote so we can fix our education system, put Utahns back to work and make sure decent health care is affordable and accessible.
Peter S. Cooke is the Utah Democratic candidate for governor.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company