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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert appeared to become emotional Wednesday evening as he reflected on the past decade near the tail end of his final State of the State address at the Utah State Capitol.
“We’ve seen major challenges but we’ve also created solutions and unparalleled success,” he said, after a brief pause. “The challenges we face today are not the same challenges we faced 10 years ago. … Tonight, as I look out at you at the dawn of a new decade, I’m in awe of the infinite possibilities that lie ahead for us.”
Herbert, who took office in 2010 when then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. stepped down to take a role as the U.S. Ambassador to China, will step aside at the end of his term. Here are five takeaways from his final State of the State speech:
'We’re just the best'
State of the State addresses are typically a forum for boasting success. While he said he was humbled by his time in office, a good chunk of Herbert’s final speech was a victory lap for Utah’s past decade.
He boasted of Utah’s 2.3% unemployment rate and that Utah leads the nation in job growth, along with other things Utah is leading in or improvements made over the past 10 years.
“Utah is thriving and we’re in the best position economically that we’ve ever been in our state’s history. … I could go on and on and on but you get the picture, the state of our state is, well, we’re just the best,” he said.
He’d later go on to say: “The 2010s have been the most successful decade in Utah’s history.”
Herbert directed a message to Utah residents, thanking them for helping the state improve.
“It’s your hard work that helps bolster our economy. It’s your kindness and service that makes us the most charitable state in the nation,” he said. “You care about your neighbors. You volunteer. It’s your hopeful spirit and work ethic that makes Utah the best place in the nation to live, to work and to raise a family. You are the main reason for our success.”
Herbert seemed to take the most pride in talking about education improvements. He pointed out that the state has invested $2.6 billion in additional money toward K-12 education over the past nine years and that high school graduation rates improved 11.4 percentage points since he became governor. Utah has also improved in testing.
“Today, our students score in the top 10 in almost every subject,” he said.
If we want to plan for future growth, we must invest directly in the people who will lead Utah in the future - our children. This year I recommend investing $4.9 million in Utah’s K-12 schools. pic.twitter.com/6ms10ZMxIj— Gov. Gary Herbert (@GovHerbert) January 30, 2020
Herbert called on the legislature to continue to improve Utah’s schools, including enhancing mental health resources and continuing to “appropriately fund public education.”
“Let’s continue to commit, right here and right now, that as a state, when it comes to supporting education, we’ll settle for nothing less than an ‘A’ grade,” he said.
However, in the Democratic Party response, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, and Minority Whip of the Utah House of Representatives, countered that Utah still isn’t spending enough to assist Utah’s students.
“If Utah truly values our children, then dramatically increasing funding for public education is the way to show it, including increasing access to after-school and early childhood programs proven to keep kids safe and get them started with a strong foundation for success,” she said. “Utah currently ranks 51st in the nation in per-pupil student funding. This is unacceptable.”
Much like previous speeches, tax reform was on Herbert’s mind. In his speech last year, Herbert outlined his plan for cutting sales tax and broadening the sales tax base. By the end of the year, lawmakers passed a tax reform bill during a special session that slashed income taxes, but increased the state’s food tax.
Wednesday’s speech came just one day after lawmakers repealed that bill amid pressure from a citizen referendum that sought to put the vote up on November ballots. Herbert briefly touched on the subject Wednesday. He acknowledged that the “voice of the people” is the reason why the bill was repealed.
However, he still urged lawmakers to address Utah’s tax code in the future.
“Tax modernization is still needed in order to have sustainable funding for public education, Medicaid and other critical, core government services,” he said.
Improving the environment
Herbert once again applauded efforts that have cut Utah’s emissions by 30% over the past decade, even thanking the bipartisan efforts from the Clean Air Caucus and other groups for their assistance. He expected those emission rates would continue to come down as more of Utah’s vehicles switched to Tier-3 fuel — now available in the state — in the coming years.
Earlier this month, he unveiled a budget proposal that included $34 million to help double-track Utah Transit Authority’s FrontRunner route, so it could run every 15 minutes instead of 30 in some parts and take cars off the road, as well as $66 million toward electric vehicle charging stations across the state.
“This $100 million investment in our transportation and mass transit is a necessary step toward improving the air that we breathe,” he said Wednesday.
While improvements have been made, Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, assistant minority whip for the Utah State Senate, said more needs to be done, pointing to studies that have linked health issues to poor air quality.
“Air quality is no longer a problem that only affects the Wasatch Front, but also communities across our state. We must take action to reduce air pollution, especially fine particulates coming from a wide range of sources,” she said.
“No parent should have to watch their child struggle to breathe due to respiratory illness caused by poor air quality,” she added. “Air pollution is one of the single greatest challenges we face in the coming decade.”
Addressing affordable housing
Herbert warned lawmakers that they must address future growth now to ensure it is sustainable in the future, pointing out that the record growth Utah has seen has led to rising home prices and the cost of rent.
“It’s time to consider making our land-use zoning laws and building codes more responsive to our growing population and market needs when it comes to housing affordability. This means we need to reimagine what our communities and houses will look like in the future,” he said. “By thinking creatively, and working in collaboration with our cities and counties, we can help change the landscape of our housing market and help design neighborhoods that our children and grandchildren will want to live in. And just as importantly, that they can afford to live in.”