In keeping with the highfalutin pomp that tradition requires, Gov. Gary Herbert’s Wednesday night State of the State address was a relentlessly positive assessment of Utah’s vitals and the challenges lawmakers face as they embark on the state’s 63rd legislative session.
“The polarization and dysfunction in Washington, D.C., have had a direct material impact on our state,” Herbert said. “Drought has created punishing conditions for wildlife and agriculture. Fires have devastated our forests, fouled our watersheds and polluted our air.”
But Utahns, as always, weathered those storms. “And overall, 2018 was indeed a banner year of accelerated economic growth and prosperity,” Herbert said. “So I am pleased to report to you tonight that in spite of challenges, the state of our state is strong, it is resilient, and our outlook is very bright.”
The governor’s speech mostly focused on education, air quality and tax reform. Following the lead of newly appointed House Speaker Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, Herbert called for a historic $225-million tax cut, the largest in state history. A mere three sentences later, Herbert said lawmakers will need to tinker with the voter-approved Medicaid expansion—a tax-funded program—so it can be “implemented in a fiscally sustainable way.”
Herbert also emphasized the need to modernize the state’s tax code. “A major structural budget challenge is Utah’s narrowing tax base,” Herbert said. “Developing a more equitable, simple and sustainable tax system will be our No. 1 priority this session.”
In 1980, Herbert said, almost three-quarters of Utah’s economy was a part of the general fund tax base. “Today, it’s only 40 percent, and that number continues to shrink.”
The guv proposed cutting the state sales tax rate by 64 percent, from 4.85 to 1.75 percent. “That is a tax cut of $225 million, especially benefitting lower and middle income families,” Herbert said. “This would mean that nearly nine out of 10 taxpayers will pay less sales tax tomorrow than they pay today.”
Herbert spent part of his speech discussing the “educational road map” he said would improve Utah’s education system. The state plans on investing $1 billion in “new ongoing revenue” in public education, and $275 million into post-secondary education by 2021.
“Because of your work and a growing economy, we will complete that investment one full year ahead of schedule,” Herbert said. “And with these additional funds, we can do some great things.”
The governor even took some time to address the Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fans in attendance. “When I meet with students, I am impressed by their intelligence and curiosity. But frankly, I have been disturbed by some of the rising generation’s fascination with socialism,” Herbert said. “It is imperative that Utah high school graduates understand not only their civic responsibility and the principles of our nation’s founding and constitution, but also the basic economic principles of free-market capitalism that have made America great.”
Herbert made no mention of the state’s self-appointed role in its soon-to-be-rolled-out medical cannabis program.
Last but not least, Herbert made special note of Utah’s air quality. “We know that a lot of little things, like reducing cold starts, can add up to big improvements. But we can think bigger,” Herbert said. “That is why we have set a goal of reducing by 25 percent our per capita emissions across the state by 2026. And that is why we need to make a down payment of $100 million for data-driven improvements in our air quality.”
Herbert encouraged state employees to use public transit and work more via telephone, and endorsed getting rid of high-polluting state vehicles and replacing them with cleaner ways to get around. He also advocated for making electric vehicle charging stations more accessible and providing 300 such chargers at state facilities.
“Our Division of Air Quality estimates that these actions taken together—many of which I hope will also be adopted by other employers—will reduce dangerous pollutants in our atmosphere by a total of 14,000 tons,” Herbert said. “That’s like taking more than 65,000 automobiles off the road annually, or the equivalent of all the registered automobiles in my home town of Orem.”
Herbert ended his speech by circling back to a Republican favorite: taxes. “Let this be the year that we stand together to create a fairer, a simpler and a more sustainable tax code, by broadening the base, cutting the rates and giving low and middle income families the biggest tax cut in Utah’s history,” he said. “After all, that is the Utah Way.”
Five Democrats gave their party’s response to Herbert’s address. They spoke of the importance of preserving the people’s will and ensuring Utah fully expands Medicaid, passing legislation to make schools safe and prevent gun violence, and ensuring the state reforms its criminal justice system. Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said his party was committed to working with Republicans to make life better for all Utahns, not just those who share his political ideology. “We are elected to represent our constituents and make policy for the entire state, not just our home city, town or county,” King said. “We will continue to be your voice on Capitol Hill. And we will keep fighting for you so that your voices are heard.”