For more than 20 years, no matter who the governor has been, you know what you’re going to get from the annual State of the State speech.
It’s part cheerleading, part aspirational: The economy is strong, we’re investing in education, we need to clean up our air and keep taxes low. Gov. Gary Herbert’s speech Wednesday — his 10th since becoming governor — was no different.
It got me thinking about past speeches, both State of the State and State of the Union, and one that always stuck with me was President George W. Bush’s 2006 speech, where he called for a ban on human-animal hybrids. It was out of left field and caught people off guard and, as I stood in line at the grocery behind a pig-man last week, I couldn’t help but wonder how that was going.
That’s another characteristic of how these things go. After the spectacle and the lofty rhetoric, there’s not much attention paid to the follow-through. So I decided to look back at Herbert’s last nine speeches and see to what extent the governor delivered — or didn’t. Here’s a look.
It’s a recurring theme in the governor’s annual speech, going back to his first in 2010. “I cannot say enough about the importance of supporting public education,” he said then. The next year, he went even further: “Therefore, in this legislative session, funding our children’s education MUST BE OUR NUMBER ONE BUDGET PRIORITY.” (His capitalization, so you know he means it).
It has indeed been a major priority. Since 2012, the state has put $1.8 billion of new money into education (both public and higher ed). Despite that, Utah remains last in the nation in per-pupil spending. In fact, at its peak, when Herbert took office, Utah was spending $7,111 per student, when adjusted for inflation, according to a Governing.com analysis of Census data. The most recent figures from 2016 show that figure is at $6,953.
Education is not all about money, as the governor has emphasized, so he has set other goals for Utah schools.
In 2011, Herbert touted a goal set by his education task force — to have school children proficient at reading by the third grade. Unfortunately, between 2013 and 2017, the percentage of third-graders who meet reading competency standards has declined slightly.
Perhaps his most notable education moonshot came in 2013, when Herbert announced: “Our goal is that 66 percent of our adult population will have a college degree or post-secondary certificate by the year 2020.”
Well, 2020 isn’t far off, and Utah has a lot of work to do.
According to Census data, as of 2017, 44 percent of Utahns over the age of 25 had associates degrees or better. And a report by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to higher ed officials last November said that just under half of the population over age 25 has at least a high-quality post-high school certificate.
And in 2015, Herbert set the goal of moving Utah into the Top 10 in the nation in graduation rates and math and literacy. In 2016, he set the goal of 90 percent graduation by 2020. As of 2017, Utah is 26th in graduation rates at 86 percent, and ranks 11th nationally in 8th grade reading and 14th in 8th grade math.
Every year, the governor touts Utah’s energy production, focusing on keeping energy cheap to attract businesses. In his 2010 address, he announced the Utah Energy Initiative.
“One of our true economic competitive advantages is our relatively low cost of power,” he said. “Our energy plan must focus on maintaining affordability, encouraging capital investment and protecting our environment.”
Turns out that the energy markets may be beyond the governor’s control. Overall energy production in the state decreased between 2010 and 2017, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal production is down, of course, but so is natural gas. Oil production and renewables are up, but just slightly.
Power is still cheap — significantly below the national average — but the cost of a kilowatt of energy has risen from 6.9 cents in 2010 to 8.6 cents in 2017, moving Utah from the third cheapest electricity in the country to seventh.
When Herbert gave his first State of the State, the unemployment rate in Utah was 8 percent, the highest it had been since 1983, so getting people back to work post-recession was a point of emphasis.
In 2012, he set the goal “to accelerate private sector job creation of 100,000 jobs in 1,000 days.” It worked, as employment in the state grew by 112,000 over the next 32 months, although it wasn’t really much of an acceleration — it’s a growth rate of about 3 percent, which is the clip the state has grown on since 2011.
In 2017, Herbert shifted the job focus to rural Utah. “I would like us to unite behind a goal of creating 25,000 new jobs in the 25 counties off the Wasatch Front over the next four years.” Here we are two years later and there have been 25,857 jobs created in those 25 counties, although more than half of those have sprouted up in Washington and Cache counties.
The governor didn’t like passage of the Affordable Care Act, but in his 2013 address, he called on the Legislature to make the best of a bad situation and find a way to expand Medicaid to cover low-income Utahns. “Assisting the poor in our state is a moral obligation that must be addressed,” he said.
The next year, he was urging them to pass a specific plan, his Healthy Utah proposal, which would have covered those below poverty and subsidized insurance for those making slightly more. The Legislature torpedoed that plan and a subsequent plan Herbert worked out with legislative leaders. That led to Proposition 3, the voter-passed initiative to expand Medicaid that Republican lawmakers are in the process of scaling back.
This year, Herbert is pushing for a $225 million sales tax cut, the largest in state history, and, indeed, keeping taxes low has been a frequent theme. In 2012, he was his most categorical. “As I did last year, and the year before that, in order to sustain our successful economic recovery, I say to you today and to the people of Utah: No new taxes!”
His record, for the most part, follows that pledge. However, in 2010, he approved a $1-per-pack cigarette tax hike. And in 2015 he signed into a law two tax increase, one to local property taxes and the other a nickel-per-gallon increase to the gas tax. And, of course, last year, he helped push for a ballot measure that would have raised gas taxes again and diverted the money to education.