SALT LAKE CITY – Gov. Gary Herbert gave his 2015 State of the State address before the Utah Legislature Wednesday night. He primarily addressed issues of increased funding for public education and his Healthy Utah plan, while also touching on issues of transportation funding, public lands, nondiscrimination, religious liberty and sundry other items facing the Legislature this year.
“The state of our state is exceptionally strong but not without significant challenge,” Herbert said.
State revenue and job growth are up, and unemployment statewide is at 3.5 percent versus the national rate of 5.6 percent. There is approximately $470 million in the state’s rainy day fund, which is more than it had before the Great Recession, Herbert said. The 2014 fiscal year also concluded with a $166 million revenue surplus.
“Economic recovery has been our top priority for the past six years,” Herbert said, “Thanks to the good work of you in the Legislature and businesses in the private sector, Utah is nationally recognized today as the home of one of the strongest and most diverse economies in America.”
“I believe that the Affordable Care Act is a deeply flawed and unacceptable piece of legislation,” Herbert said.
However, he said, Utah has the option to take the lemons the federal government has given it and make lemonade in the form of the Healthy Utah plan. He proceeded to list three primary reasons the plan is a viable alternative to options offered by the federal government in connection with the Affordable Care Act:
First, the Affordable Care Act—which is the law of the land—requires Utahns to pay almost $800 million in new taxes each year. The choice before us is stark: We can either watch our hard-earned tax dollars remain on the table in Washington, D.C., primarily benefiting other states, or we can bring back a significant amount of our own money to Utah to be spent on Utahns. When it comes to expanding health coverage for uninsured Utahns, accepting the benefits is optional, but paying the taxes is mandatory.
Second, Healthy Utah will help fix the problem of nearly 100,000 people who too often use our health care system in the most inefficient and expensive ways. It’s better to give them access to private health insurance rather than have them continue to receive their health care in emergency rooms. Because, when this happens, the quality of our health care goes down and the costs go up for everyone.
Third, Healthy Utah addresses the health care needs of our citizens while respecting core Utah values. Chief among these are self-reliance and the dignity of work. We can connect people in need of health insurance with programs proven to help them improve their employment, putting them on a path to self-reliance.
Herbert’s proposed Healthy Utah plan may have an uphill battle in the Legislature, as it has not been met with much support from the Republican-dominated body.
Funding education is vitally important for the continued health and growth of the state economy, Herbert said. He called for $500 million in new spending, which he called the largest increase in student funding in the last 25 years.
A 10-year plan is also being developed to chart the state’s educational pursuits.
“This plan will allow us to better connect the money we invest to improved outcomes for all students and provide greater academic achievement,” Herbert said. “Part of that plan is for Utah to become a Top 10 state in graduation rates, ACT scores, and in math and in literacy.”
Utah is one of the fastest growing states in the county and is expected to double in population by 2060, the governor said. With that growth comes the challenge of making sure the state’s transportation infrastructure keeps up with it. Herbert said:
While we have sufficient funding for all the road projects currently planned, projections show that our current revenue sources fall $11 billion short of what will be required for our long-term state transportation needs…The time to have a meaningful discussion about long-term solutions to our transportation funding is now.
Nondiscrimination and religious liberty
Herbert also echoed a statement made by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Tuesday reaffirming support of nondiscrimination legislation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals while also protecting religious freedoms.
“I firmly believe that, to protect the personally held values of people on all sides of this issue, any advancement of nondiscrimination legislation should be coupled with legislation to safeguard protections to religious freedom,” he said.
“The question is, who will manage our public lands most effectively – the best-managed state in America, or the federal government that is $18 trillion in debt? The answer is obvious,” Herbert said.
The governor said he strongly supports the Public Lands Initiative pushed by congressional Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz.
“Utahns are significantly impacted by federal decisions concerning our public lands, and Utahns must have a strong voice and role in managing those lands,” Herbert said. “We value our partnership with the federal government in areas of shared responsibility, but we will never be content to be a silent or a junior partner.”
Herbert announced a proposal to be put before the Legislature for the creation of an Inspector General’s Office.
The Inspector General’s Office will “act as an independent entity to elevate and ensure the highest levels of ethics and official conduct in state government. Ensuring the highest standards of open, honest government must always be our top priority,” Herbert said.
He also called for “meaningful corrections and criminal justice Utah.”
Herbert continued: “We have one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country; unfortunately, it’s still too high. Part of the problem is that nearly half of all Utah inmates return to prison within three years of release. We can change these results, but not without meaningful reform.”
Stakeholders across the state continue to look for ways to converse and develop water resources to supply a growing population and economy.
On the matter of air quality, a prime topic in northern Utah, Herbert said the state has been able to cut emissions by 35 percent along the Wasatch Front thanks to ongoing efforts to combat poor air quality.
“I thank you in the Legislature who championed the eight air-quality bills I proudly signed last year,” he said. “You helped lead the charge to do more to improve air quality than any previous Legislature on record.”
- Read the 2015 State of the State address here.
- LDS Church expresses support for LGBT nondiscrimination measures
- Deadline for public lands transfer passes, state considers litigation
- Sen. Urquhart plans to reintroduce nondiscrimination bill
- Healthy Utah Plan in the works for those in the uninsured gap
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