Utahns "must aspire to reach higher," Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told his constituents Tuesday in his fourth annual State of the State address, the first to be delivered in the newly remodeled Capitol.
Huntsman, who is seeking a second term this November, delivered an upbeat assessment of the state's economy while cautioning there's work ahead on securing affordable health care and improving education.
"We aren't an ordinary state, nor do we lack a sense of destiny, and our journey over the next few years will determine just how extraordinary we are," the GOP governor said. "The higher ground we seek will require something from all of us."
Huntsman, first elected in 2004, reminded Utahns that boosting the state's economy was among the promises he made in his first State of the State address, delivered in Utah's territorial capitol of Fillmore.
"Our economic prowess has been nationally recognized by many respected organizations," the governor said. "We no longer have one of America's top performing economies. We have the nation's premier economy."
And despite concerns that the nation is headed for recession, Huntsman said Utah's economy can be kept strong, promising that "during times of uncertainty we will work even harder to keep it that way."
Examples of Utah's powerful economy, he said, are Proctor&Gamble's recent decision to manufacture paper products in Box Elder County, Amer Sports' moving its North American headquarters to Ogden and the growth of Omniture, an Orem-based software company.
Also bolstering Utah's economy, Huntsman said, was the lowering of the state's personal income rate to 5 percent by the 2007 Legislature. But the governor did not address future tax cuts, something that his fellow GOP lawmakers have made it clear they want this session.
Utah's education system, he said, has been criticized by many for not keeping pace with the rapidly changing world. "They have a valid point," Huntsman said, calling for the state to be "more creative, innovative and flexible" in adapting to labor market changes.
He said Utah was 400 teachers short this year twice as many as last year. "It is time we put educators back on a pedestal," the governor said. "To do this we must improve two things: compensation and capacity."
That means continuing record increases for education and increasing by 1,000 the number of educators being trained in Utah colleges over the next four years. Huntsman also called for year-round contracts for math and science teachers.
As for health care, the governor said it's "a troubling inconsistency" that the state is among the most advanced in the medical sciences while far too many Utahns cannot afford adequate health care.
More than 300,000 Utahns lack insurance, he said, an issue that "is crying out for a fix."
That fix won't come fast, though. Lawmakers are expected to act on a proposal that will provide a framework to get started on a major overhaul of the state's health care system, a multi-year process, according to Huntsman.
He sprinkled his speech with references to communities throughout the state, and recognized a number of accomplished Utahns including Nobel Prize winner Mario Capecchi and the state's only surviving Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Marine George Wahlen.
Utah Army National Guard Sgt. Gordon Ewell, who was left legally blind and deaf after being hit six times during the 59 combat missions he completed in Iraq, was also honored, as the governor called for the Ogden Veterans Nursing Home to be built.
"Hard work, geography, and history have dealt us a fortunate hand. Now it is up to 'We the people' to fulfill our destiny," Huntsman said, calling on everyone to work together to make the state greater."Preeminence is within our grasp," he said. "We must aspire to reacher higher."