Unlike many governors, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert can legitimately claim to preside over a state that is prospering despite a sputtering national economy. As he noted in his annual State of the State Address to the Legislature on Wednesday, Utah is the second-fastest growing state in the nation, it is adding jobs at an impressive rate, has the fourth lowest unemployment rate and has emphasized a business-friendly atmosphere that, among other things, can approve a new business license within three days.
All of this adds up to the promise of further growth and prosperity in the future. And all are indications not only of a strong private sector, but of responsible political management, as well.
But the state also has its share of difficult challenges. To his credit, Herbert faced many of these head-on in his speech.
Clean air has been on the minds of many Utahns this winter, as inversions have created stagnant and unhealthy conditions. Herbert reviewed the work of his Clean Air Action Team and announced his administration will begin to transition to making Tier 3 gasoline vehicles available in Utah, which pollute less than currently available vehicles. He also asked the Air Quality Board to limit wood burning stoves during inversion season in areas of the state that do not meet EPA air standards.
We wish he would have announced intentions to push for variable tolls on all major highways, and we question whether the state has the resources to adequately enforce wood-burning restrictions, but his initiatives are a step in the right direction. The geography of Utah’s northern valleys makes clean air a challenge at times. Requiring vehicles with tougher emissions standards will go far toward helping to meet that challenge. As the governor said, “There is absolutely no reason to wait.”
Education, as always, represents a huge challenge for the state, given its many large families and perpetual funding problems. Herbert emphasized making schools accountable, improving science, technology, engineering and math programs, improving career counseling, making education responsive to private-sector needs and paying teachers more.
The governor said these would help the state reach its goal of having 66 percent of all adults hold a degree or post-secondary certificate by 2020. That remains an ambitious goal that likely will take a more radical approach to education reform than Herbert has proposed. But his plans are politically feasible and sound.
The governor also gave proper emphasis to criminal justice reform, redirecting the emphasis from moving the prison to an overall strategy to reduce criminal recidivism. He also made mention of state sovereignty, including defending Amendment 3, the gay marriage ban, in court, and dealing with the Affordable Care Act. In both cases, Herbert should be credited with maintaining and urging a tone of civility. His pledge to work with lawmakers to “create a Utah model for fixing this hole in the safety net,” referring to whether to expand Medicaid coverage, signals that compassion will not be lost in the pursuit of fiscal responsibility.
As the governor noted, population growth is both a blessing and a challenge. Those challenges include dealing with public lands and balancing extraction with preservation. A great deal of debate and deliberation will be required to meet these challenges.
However, the governor — whose most delightful surprise of the evening involved support for a student-led initiative to change the state tree from the Colorado Blue Spruce to the Aspen — gave every indication that he has a firm grasp of the state’s needs and the ability to lend leadership to that process.
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