Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Janelle Baker hands out papers while her eighth-grade U.S. history class takes a quiz at Valley Junior High in West Valley City. With our emphasis on family and our love for children, Utah ought to aspire to be the No. 1 education state in the country.

By most measures, 2018 is getting off to a good start in Utah. The economy is strong and optimism is soaring. Despite high drama in Washington, D.C., the congressional tax reform legislation passed at the end of last year should contribute to continued economic growth this year.

But Utah leaders still face plenty of challenges in this new year. A recent poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates shows what issues citizens feel are most important to be addressed in the Legislature.

Education was clearly the No. 1 issue, followed by air quality and health care reform/Medicaid expansion. Some thoughts on those issues:

Education excellence. I personally fully agree with our citizens who believe that education is the most important issue facing our state. That’s why I agreed to co-chair with Gail Miller the Our Schools Now campaign to increase funding for education.

Excellent education, I believe, forms the foundation of a strong economy, strong society and a superb quality of life. Excellent education means our young people can find good-paying jobs that can support a family. With excellent education, our young people will be able to thrive in a fast-changing, high-tech world featuring jobs, businesses and industries that we can’t even imagine today.

With our emphasis on family and our love for children, Utah ought to aspire to be the No. 1 education state in the country. Besides the benefits to individuals and families, having the nation’s best workforce would provide great economic advantages.

In Utah we have caring parents and dedicated teachers who do their very best, despite having fewer financial resources, as measured by per-pupil expenditures, than any state in the country. But I don’t believe we can become the nation’s No. 1 education state while we are last in the nation in education spending.

Let’s make 2018 the year for education excellence. Nothing is more important.

Air quality. While our air quality is improving, the bad air episodes during inversions are not acceptable. The challenge with air quality is that it is a million little acts (like starting a car or turning up a furnace thermostat) that cause our air quality problems. It will require a million little acts to keep our air clean during inversions. Those small individual acts of carpooling, riding public transit, combining errands into one trip, turning down the temperature, etc., really will make a difference.

Health care reform. With Congress seemingly unable to meaningfully address health care issues, the state should take matters into its own hands. The Trump administration appears willing to grant states more flexibility in the use of federal health care funds, including Medicaid dollars.

A step forward would be to approve the Medicaid expansion proposal that will be on the ballot in November. That action would unlock hundreds of millions of federal health care dollars and allow Utah to provide health care services to tens of thousands of low-income citizens.

Beyond those three important issues, Utah faces a fascinating year ahead with interesting political and public policy choices.

The Legislature starts later this month with state tax reform high on the agenda. Utah’s tax system is decades old and was devised for a different economic structure than our services-oriented economy today. Ample opportunity exists to modernize our tax structure and broaden the base while maintaining low tax rates.

We also have an exciting political year ahead with an open U.S. Senate race, four congressional seats up for grabs and many state House and Senate races. If enough signatures are gathered to get proposals on the ballot, voters could also decide several important issues: legalizing medical marijuana, creating an independent commission to recommend political district boundaries, expanding Medicaid, boosting education funding and institutionalizing the process of gathering signatures to get on primary election ballots.

Buckle up for an exciting year ahead.