“The state of our state is outstanding,” said Gov. Gary Herbert Wednesday evening, kicking off his annual State of the State address before the Legislature. His half hour address included highlights of some of the past year's accomplishments, as well as urging lawmakers to support the governor's upcoming priorities.
Herbert opened with an education theme, saying “If you remember nothing else from my message this evening, remember this. Education is the most important investment we can make in Utah’s future.”
The governor touted the Legislature’s increases in education funding over the past few years, critiquing those who pan Utah’s last-in-the-nation ranking on per-pupil funding. “As I go around the state,” said Herbert, “I am often thanked by teachers, principals, parents and others for this extraordinary investment in Utah’s future. Members of the Legislature, I recognize that you often don’t get all the credit you deserve on this issue. On behalf of all 3 million Utahns from across this state, I am here to deliver a message that is long overdue. Thank you, members of the Legislature, for investing in our future.”
That didn’t sit well with legislative Democrats, long advocates of drastically increasing education funding. “We need to do a lot more,” said Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, in an interview immediately following the governor's address. "When you look at how deep in the hole we are, we shouldn’t be so quick to pat ourselves on the back. Incremental moves aren’t enough.”
Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, disagreed with that assessment, saying, “Last year [we passed] the biggest education funding increase in a decade. … If that is met with nothing but contempt, and you say ‘we are as mad as we’ve ever been,’ that can breed cynicism, and that can leave a young lawmaker believing they can’t get in front of the conversations because even after we do these things we can’t show that we’re moving the needle.”
State of Utah
“Six years ago,” Herbert spoke, “our state found itself in the most severe recession since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate at the time was 8 percent. … [Today,] our state economy has added 219,000 new jobs, with an unemployment rate dropping from 8 percent down to 3½ percent today. In fact, in nine of the last 12 months, Utah had the highest job growth creation of any state in the nation.” Herbert also added that since his 2015 State of the State address, “businesses across our state have now added approximately 40,000 new jobs.”
Herbert did acknowledge, however, that many of Utah’s young people—particularly those from rural Utah—tend to leave the state to seek job opportunities elsewhere. Herbert noted that the Legislature has passed several pieces of legislation in the last few years to enable expansion of businesses in smaller towns.
But, he said, it’s not enough, and he implored lawmakers “to focus on these communities with renewed determination and resolve.” He asked legislators to remember that “it is our small businesses and large businesses and the tens of thousands of hardworking, productive Utah workers who create Utah’s economic success, and not the government.”
Herbert did take the opportunity to once again urge lawmakers to pass Medicaid expansion, although he avoided mentioning any specifics or strategies. “My friends in the Legislature,” said Herbert, “it is time to find a solution. This problem is not going to go away. This is too important an issue to ignore. Too many Utahns work hard and still have no health-care coverage.”
While the state Senate passed Herbert’s Healthy Utah proposal in 2015, none of the many Medicaid Expansion plans that have been proposed have managed to win the favor of the House Republicans. “There’s no way I want to finish a third session in a row with nothing on the books,” says Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, who more than any other lawmaker arguably has been leading the fight to expand Medicaid for the uninsured. Shiozawa says the entire Medicaid Expansion fight rests on House Republican leadership. “We need to get a plan that covers 100 percent of the coverage gap, and what I don’t want to see is something that only covers some of the people [without coverage], like the Frail Utah plan or something like it.”