In his final State of the State address, Gov. Herbert says Utah has endless opportunities, along with challenges

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert recognizes a group of refugees in the gallery, as he delivers his 11th and final State of the State address in the Utah House of Representatives, at the Utah State Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

During his 11th and final State of the State address on Wednesday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told lawmakers that he is “in awe of the infinite possibilities that lie ahead of us."

But he also warned that challenges lie ahead as well, and urged the Legislature to plan now for population growth and increased pressure on transportation, housing and air quality.

“We need to ensure that our children have safe places to play, clean air to breathe and good water to drink,” Herbert said.

Earlier this month, Herbert released his budget recommendations for the 2020 legislation session, which recommended $100 million to expand mass transit services and build a charging network for electric vehicles.

Herbert reiterated those ideas Wednesday, suggesting that additional commuter rail lines be built to increase the frequency of FrontRunner services and that the state’s roads be designed with all forms of transportation in mind.

“We need to boldly reimagine our roads to safely accommodate cars, mass transit, bikes, pedestrians and even those pesky scooters,” Herbert said. “We should make commuting by transit as easy as commuting by car.”

Tax reform

Herbert also addressed Tuesday’s repeal of a controversial tax reform package that was passed by lawmakers in December. Herbert and legislative leaders had vocally defended the tax package as necessary and beneficial to the state, but retreated in the face of a referendum campaign that would have put the reforms up for a public vote in November.

He said the repeal was due to the “voice of the people" being raised in opposition to the changes, but added that an update to the state’s tax structure is still needed to ensure funding for government services.

“We need to improve the dialogue,” Herbert said. “We need to build consensus, and we need to take the time to find solutions that are fair and equitable, and that will serve the best interests and the long-term needs of the people.”

Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, reacted to Herbert’s remarks in a prepared statement that said too many elected officials disregard the voice of Utahns.

“It’s no wonder that so many Utahns have become cynical and discouraged about government in this state,” she said. “I am proud to serve with my fellow Democratic legislators who do listen to the people.”

Ahead of Herbert’s address, and this week’s start of the 2020 legislative session, a new poll showed that more Utahns approve of the performance of the governor and the state Legislature than disapprove, but in both cases the praise is more muted than a similar survey showed last year.

Public opinion

The poll, by The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University, showed 61% of participants indicating approval for Herbert, compared with 26% who disapproved of the governor. But the state Legislature scored lower with residents, with 46% of poll participants saying they approve of the performance of lawmakers compared with 34% who disapprove.

The new poll was conducted Jan. 18-Jan. 22, and included responses from 500 Utah residents. It has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.4 percentage points.

One participant, Riverton resident Bob Peters, said the “fiasco” of the now-repealed tax bill — which would have raised the sales tax on groceries, among other changes — was on his mind as he evaluated the state’s leadership.

“To me, it seemed like they were just protecting their jobs,” Peters said of state leaders’ decision to reverse course. “If you’re going to put a bill out that has such a negative public image and you’re supporting that, what’s going to happen the next time there’s an election?”

For both Herbert and the Legislature, the poll results show a drop in approval compared with the last time The Salt Lake Tribune polled Utahns on the subject. Last January, a Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll showed Herbert earning the approval of 73% of voters, compared with 21% who disapproved of his performance.

And 60% of participants in last year’s poll approved of the performance of the Utah Legislature, with 31% disapproving.

The questions asked in the two polls were the same, although they involved different pollsters and the respondents in the most recent survey were adult residents, compared to registered voters in the earlier poll.

In a prepared statement, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he values the trust that citizens place in the Legislature, and that lawmakers are working to identify ways to improve their performance in the eyes of the state.

“We will continue to take on difficult issues Utah faces and work together to find well thought out policies that will support our state’s economic prosperity,” Adams said.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said Utah is an incredible place to live, work and play, and that lawmakers work tirelessly to make Utah the best state in the nation.

“We will continue to work to represent our districts and make decisions that are in the best interest of the long-term health and prosperity of our great state,” he said.

Herbert and a supermajority of legislators are Republicans, and the poll results showed a difference of opinion on their performance based on partisan lines. Republicans were more likely to indicate approval on both questions — 77% approved of Herbert and 64% approved of the Legislature — while more Democrats disapproved of their job performances — 49% disapprove of Herbert compared with 28% who approve, and 59% disapproved of the Legislature.

Among those who said they were unaffiliated with a political party — and these people make up the second largest voting bloc in the state behind Republicans — 62% approved of Herbert and 24% disapproved. As far as the Legislature, 40% of unaffiliated respondents approved of its performance and 36% disapproved, while a quarter had no opinion.

For and by the people

Janet Crane, a Summit County resident who describes herself as a Democrat but not a liberal, said she has a more negative view of the Legislature than the governor. She objected to the way lawmakers repealed and replaced initiatives that were approved in a public vote, as they did after the 2018 votes on medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion.

“We voted,” she said. “There are no ifs, ands or buts about it.”

Crane, a retired nurse, believes government is supposed to be "for the people, by the people,” she said, “and that’s not the way it’s working out.”

But Gem Morris, a conservative South Jordan resident, said he generally approves of the work of both the governor and Legislature. He pointed to the state’s low unemployment and healthy economy, and said the state’s leaders have wisely allowed national trends and market forces to drive growth and competition.

“I think it’s a good thing that they’ve stood back and gotten out of the way,” Morris said.

A spokesman for Herbert, who is not seeking reelection this year, declined to comment on the poll results.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, released a statement Wednesday saying that it was the state’s elected Democrats who listened to the people on medical marijuana, Medicaid and tax reform. He also referred to another 2018 ballot initiative — which created an independent redistricting commission to handle political map-drawing after the 2020 census — and said the minority party would work to protect the public vote on that issue.

“Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around,” King said. “As 2021 approaches, there may be attempts to water down or even eliminate the role of the independent commission. We will remain vigilant and pledge to continue fighting for you, the people who elected us to serve.”

Pioneers and teachers

During his remarks Wednesday evening, a sometimes emotional Herbert praised the residents of Utah as kind-hearted people who volunteer and care about their neighbors. He referred to the actions of the Latter-day Saint pioneers who settled in the state, and how they would plant crops and establish routes for the benefit of future travelers.

“Together, we can be like the pioneers of the past and sow the right seeds, and prepare the trail for those who are yet to follow,” he said.

Herbert made a point to recognize the female members of the state Legislature, asking them to stand while he paused his address for applause.

“You are proving that Utah woman’s place is in the House and in the Senate,” Herbert said. “Thank you. We need more of you.”

Herbert also praised the state’s teachers and public education system, and lauded low unemployment rates and fast job growth throughout the state as the best economy in the history of Utah.

Quality of life has never been better, Herbert said, and the future has never been brighter.

“I could go on, but you get the picture,” Herbert said. “The State of our State is, well we’re just the best.”