State of the State speeches, like their more boisterous State of the Union big brothers, often stray onto a tiresome, pothole-strewn path filled with applause lines and political posturing. Give Utah Gov. Gary Herbert credit for avoiding that Wednesday night.
Herbert’s assessment was a frank discussion about the difficult political agenda he and Republican legislative leaders have set for the state despite what must be described as extraordinarily prosperous times. He even used history, the upcoming 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in Utah, for an effective rhetorical flourish.
The rail line was completed by the precision teamwork of thousands of former slaves, Irish immigrants and forgotten Chinese, Mexican and Native American laborers, along with transplants from across Europe, he said.
And the application for today?
“First, we can and we should do more to protect the nameless, the outcast and the vulnerable,” he said.
Then, “although we come from diverse backgrounds and experience, we can work side-by-side, sunup-to-sundown, with the spirit of cooperation to lay a foundation for our future prosperity.”
That image hit the right note. It may be hard to sustain, however, as lawmakers seek ways to limit the scope of a voter-approved initiative to expand Medicaid to people who earn 138 percent or less of the federal poverty level. Legislative leaders believe the initiative can’t pay for itself with its 0.15 percent sales tax increase.
In his speech, the governor said the “much needed” initiative should be “implemented in a fiscally sustainable way” with “some commonsense adjustments.”
But if those don’t happen in a way that extends full coverage to the nameless, outcast and vulnerable in the way voters said they wanted, it will be a breech of trust with the people. Lawmakers and the governor should find a way to make this happen.
The governor also was honest about the political courage that will be required to reform the state’s sales tax system, another priority for him and legislative leaders. This, he correctly said, “is not for the faint of heart.”
He embraced House Speaker Brad Wilson’s challenge to give Utahns a $225 million tax cut as part of this process, up from the $200 million Herbert initially proposed. But this carrot is surrounded by plenty of things ordinary Utahns might consider sticks.
The governor and legislative leaders want to extend the sales tax to many services, ranging perhaps from haircuts to landscaping to doctor’s visits, that currently are not subject to it. Attaching even a reduced tax rate to these could feel like a tax hike to many people, and proposals to do so may be met with stiff lobbying resistance.6 comments on this story
And yet the governor effectively laid out the reasons for extending the tax, citing a changing economy and a dwindling array of transactions that are subject to the tax, which ultimately funds core governmental functions.
Prosperous times are the best times to reform tax structures, provide more money for education and put programs in place to help people with the most needs. Unfortunately, they also tend to be the worst times in which to gather political will.
Herbert deserves credit for pushing a challenging agenda amid a state surplus of more than $1 billion, as well as for not dwelling on the credit he is due for prosperity.
His agenda should serve the state well when the inevitable economic slowdown comes.