No new initiatives, instead Utah Gov. Gary Herbert uses State of State address to praise Operation Rio Grande, working together

Instead of ticking off the usual long list of priorities for the year, Gov. Gary Herbert used his State of the State address Wednesday to praise Utahns who work together to solve tough problems — and to encourage more cooperation.

“I want to talk about the good that comes from doing the hard things,” he said, “and how together we can build a better, a kinder and a more civil world.”

Herbert, who has declined to seek re-election in 2020, said the best example of such joint work over the past year was in addressing the lawlessness in areas frequented by the homeless in the Rio Grande neighborhood of Salt Lake City.

“There wasn’t a playbook for this exercise,” he said. “It didn’t fit neatly into anyone’s job description. It came with uncertainty. It came with risk, but also with the potential to do some real good.”

The governor said Democrats and Republicans, state and local leaders and others collaborated with the mantra: “Shoulder-to-shoulder; no credit, no blame.”

While it is too early to declare victory, he said, working together “has already broken up drug trafficking, reduced crime, cleaned up our streets and parks, increased treatment services and provided job opportunities.”

He recounted sentiment from advocate Pamela Atkinson, who said of her homeless friends there: “Instead of seeing hopelessness in their eyes, I and others are seeing hope.”

The governor added: “This is what sets Utah apart. Instead of skirting the big issues, instead of pointing fingers … we face them in the spirit of personal and shared responsibility. And we find answers.”

One Utahn he singled out as an example for serving others was Matt Hillyard, who had Down syndrome and died at age 42 earlier this month. The son of Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, Matt for years roamed the Legislature, giving everyone hugs and encouragement.

“Matt loved unconditionally,” Herbert said. “In Matt’s eyes, there were only winners, no losers. Matt taught me to live each day to its fullest. ... Matt taught me to sing loud, even when you’re off key.”

The governor added: “This session, let’s set a goal ... let’s all try to live our life like Matt. And let’s make decisions that matter.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert smiles as he gives his State of the State address in the Utah House of Representatives in Salt Lake City Wednesday January 24, 2018.

The governor held up as examples several other efforts in which Utahns worked together on difficult issues, including:

• Utahns — including Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and state Auditor John Dougall — joining to travel repeatedly to Puerto Rico to offer continuing relief after hurricanes. “Once again Utahns stepped up, when there was no playbook, to help their fellow man.”

• BrainStorm Inc. decided to help improve connect the high-tech boom on the Wasatch front with rural schools, the governor said, by adopting Mont Harmon Middle School in Carbon County.

• Intrepid, a communications and public relations firm, decided to regularly bring volunteers to Meadowlark Elementary in Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood.

• Community leaders working with a new task force to address teenage suicide also won his praise for taking on a tough problem.

“I am grateful every day as Utahns see a concern and step up to address a problem where there is no playbook. And it happens all the time,” he said. “Here in Utah, I am humbled to stand in the presence of many, many heroes.”

While Herbert avoided the usual discussion of priorities, he gave quick mentions of several examples of what he said lawmakers already know must be done. He introduced each by saying, “You already know.” They included:

• “The need to update our tax code so that it conforms to the realities of today’s dynamic marketplace while anticipating what tomorrow might bring.”

• “We need to think proactively about infrastructure so that we maintain what we build, so that users pay their fair share and so that we are investing in the future of our great state.”

• “We need to think creatively about transportation funding so that our finite funds provide the most cost-effective solutions, regardless of the mode of travel.”

• “Although we have continued to reduce overall emissions, we need to do much more to encourage responsible choices and pursue evidence-based improvement for our air quality.”

• “We need to patch up holes that are in our social safety net.”

• In talking about a granddaughter, he seemed to offer some support to the #MeToo movement when he questioned, “Will she find a workplace that protects her from harassment and gives her equal opportunity for her equal potential.” He said the answer is yes.

Herbert said 1,277 bills have been requested by lawmakers this session. As one member told him, “It may be a bit much,” and the governor called for better prioritization.

As required by state law, the governor also reported officially on the state of the state.

“By every meaningful metric, the state of Utah is truly exceptional,” he said. “Our state is healthy, it’s growing and it’s very successful.”

Democrats reacted to the governor’s speech by saying they believe in many of the things Herbert outlined, but they want concrete action beyond words to help working families.

“Many of the platitudes the governor has said [about] the state of Utah, we kind of agree with,” said Senate Democratic leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City. “We want to see action. When we talk about public education, we want to see that infrastructure addressed. We want to make sure the money is there for our children.”

House Democratic leader Brian King added: “When you are looking at protecting working families in Utah, you don’t just talk about family values. ... We are promoting policies that are concrete and specific,” such as higher wages, paid family leave and equal pay for equal work.

“We’re still 51st in the nation for per pupil spending,” King added. “We still struggle every winter and every summer with air quality. ... We don’t want to get complacent. Sometimes I feel we do.”