Robert Gehrke: Gov. Gary Herbert’s final budget could really help Utahns

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert delivers his state budget recommendations, Jan. 8, 2020 at This is the Place Heritage Park.

Gov. Gary Herbert issued his budget proposal for the coming year Wednesday, a dense $20 billion blueprint that is, at its core, utterly ceremonial and probably gets a lot more fanfare and media attention than it deserves.

Seriously, years ago I asked a legislative leader what he thought of that governor’s budget and he said, “I was happy to get it. Now my table is level.”

At least that year, the budget book served a purpose.

But the governor’s proposal serves another purpose: It provides the clearest outline of the governor’s vision for the state and plants a flag for what his legislative and fiscal priorities will be.

Robert Gehrke

No surprise, education was high on Herbert’s list with a proposed $290 million in new spending in the coming year. (A reminder here to those voters who value education: It would have been a lot more, as Herbert conceded, if the Legislature hadn’t slashed $160 million in education funding as part of the tax bill).

Buried deeper in the budget are a few items that jumped out at me as important investments in our quality of life and are well-worth the investment.

Air quality

Herbert is asking legislators to spend $100 million to alleviate traffic-related air pollution. Specifically, he wants $34 million to expand mass transit, including offering free transit passes to state employees, and another $66 million to build new electric vehicle charging stations.

He also is proposing to continue a program that has used settlement money from the Volkswagen emission-rigging lawsuit to upgrade old school buses and other large vehicles, which are major polluters.

Since 2002, overall statewide emissions have been reduced by 30%, despite rapid growth. Now the target he’s setting is another 25% reduction in per capita emissions by 2026 — a goal that is realistic according to Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership.

“I do think [it] is achievable, not only because we’ve achieved 30% in the last 10 years, but looking at the way things are going. We have Tier 3 fuel, electric vehicles, not just what the state is doing [with charging stations] but because of manufacturers, more cars are going to be available,” Carter said.

The Wasatch Front will still experience bad air days because of geography and weather, Carter said, but instead of having red air days on the second or third day after a storm, it could be the fifth or sixth day — and that makes a big difference to those of us who live here.

Affordable housing

A recent study by the University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Center projected the average home could cost as much as $1.3 million by 2044. The housing pain is felt across-the-board, from low-income rentals to affordable family homes. It is a serious threat to Utah’s economic vitality.

Last session, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, was trying to get about $28 million to alleviate a genuine crisis in affordable housing availability. He got nothing.

This year, Herbert is asking the Legislature to allocate $20 million to the Olene Walker Housing Trust Fund, money that can go a long way to incentivizing housing projects that are within reach for the average Utah family.

It’s probably not enough, but it’s a good start.

Mental health treatment

It won’t get the love it deserves, but Herbert’s request of $30 million for mental health treatment is not only badly needed, but he’s focusing it on the right areas.

The number of beds in the Utah State Hospital is the same as it was 40 years ago, while the population of the state has doubled. It leaves the hospital juggling between those in desperate need of in-patient care via a civil commitment, and so-called “forensic” beds, those who have committed a crime and are committed to the hospital instead of prison or jail.

It has forced the early release of people accused of serious crimes who probably still need treatment and left jails trying to triage mentally ill inmates.

So Herbert is asking for nearly $5 million for a new forensic unit at the state hospital, alleviating some of that pressure.

On top of that, he is asking for $11 million for an inmate mental health transition facility, to make sure when inmates are released back into the public they are prepared for life on the outside; $10.4 million for receiving centers in urban areas, basically crisis care facilities where mentally ill or drug-addicted individuals can go in an emergency and not be turned away; $2.5 million for mobile crisis units in rural Utah, where there is an acute shortage of mental health services; and $500,000 in student loan forgiveness for students in mental health fields who work in underserved areas.

Herbert joked Wednesday that he could save the Legislature a lot of time if they just vote to approve the budget he has recommended. They won’t do that, of course. But the governor has identified three of the most critical challenges the state is facing and offered concrete proposals to address them. They deserve more than being used to balance a wobbly table.