Halfway through Gov. Mike Leavitt's first term, several things are clear:
- He is going to run for a second term, maybe even a third.- He is the most popular politician in the state, one of the most popular in the state's history.
- He made a lot of promises in his 1992 campaign and soon after winning office. He's kept most of those promises, although there are some notable variations on the themes. And the ones he hasn't achieved - like making Utah's crowded, overstretched public education system "world class" - he's working on, even if the goal is basically unattainable.
"This (administration) is a work in progress, and we've made fine progress," says Leavitt.
Leavitt, 44, promised change and dynamic leadership. And many of those interviewed by the Deseret News for this report say he's accomplished that. However, some wonder if he is emphasizing the right things, spending enough time on Utah matters, paying great enough attention to environmental issues or treating local officials as he demands federal bosses treat him.
"Unfortunately, Governor Leavitt is spending more time ingratiating himself with big Eastern politics than he is managing the critical issues confronting the state, like hyper growth and the impact that it is having on the rising financial cost of housing, education, transportation, infrastructure and environmental needs," Salt Lake City Council Chairman Stuart Reid said. It's a tad hypocritical to push for states' rights while your own Legislature whittles away and ignores the rights and powers of local governments, Reid adds.
But while Leavitt may have some detractors among Utah's civic and political elite, he is downright loved by the citizenry.
The latest Deseret News/KSL poll, completed a week ago by Dan Jones & Associates, shows Leavitt with an 83 percent approval rating (see chart). Only 9 percent of Utahns disapprove of the job the governor is doing; 9 percent don't have an opinion.
Leavitt faces re-election in 1996. Jones asked if Leavitt should run for re-election or is it time to give someone else a chance. Seventy-six percent want Leavitt to run again. In political jargon, the question is known as a "naked re-elect," and any showing over 50 percent is considered good.
Finally, Jones asked who the interviewee would vote for - Leavitt or any unnamed opponent. Fifty-eight percent said they'd vote for Leavitt. No Democrat has yet announced plans to run.
Don't doubt it, Leavitt is running for re-election in 1996, although he hasn't formally announced. He already has hired a full-time campaign manager, has $200,000 in his personal PAC, and Democratic state leaders have no idea who they may find to run against him.
"I think some young, energetic (Democrat) will challenge him," state Democratic Party Chairman Dave Jones said. "There are some chinks in his armor."
Well, maybe some scratches.
Environmental groups don't like some of Leavitt's approaches. Wilderness advocates hated his asking rural county officials to recommend how much wilderness should be designated in their counties.
Some local-government officials don't like the way the Legislature, and sometimes Leavitt, treated them in the 1994 and 1995 sessions. They especially don't like Leavitt allowing the outlawing of local-government gun control.
And pro-life groups, while pleased with Leavitt's refusal to use tax funds for Medicaid-mandated abortions, remain angry over his decision to stop an abortion appeal in federal court and are disappointed he hasn't pushed new anti-abortion law.
But upset local-government officials, pro-lifers and environmentalists do not a significant political coalition make.
Leavitt's popularity comes on two fronts, says Democrat Ted Wilson, a former Salt Lake mayor and now head of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
"He's a political dream for Utah Republicans. His personal style is wonderful," said Wilson, who in 1988 lost a close race for governor against Norm Bangerter.
And, Wilson said, Leavitt acts like a moderate Republican, although Leavitt may call himself a conservative. "He's had a moderating effect on the more conservative, and sometimes reactionary, GOP-dominated Legislature." And while Utah is conservative, good Republican politicians know when to ignore the right wing of their party, Wilson said.
"He's done a good job the last two years. But he really hasn't been tested by fire. Unlike Norm, Mike has not had to pump a lake or raise taxes for education," said Wilson, referring to Bangerter's unpopular pumping of the rising Great Salt Lake in the mid-1980s and the large tax increase in 1987.
"(Leavitt) has inherited a great state economy, more revenues than ever. He has cut taxes two years in a row. The pro-lifers may be angry at him, but Mike has kept us out of costly court fights - like we had over regulating cable TV and abortion - and hasn't allowed Utah to be embarrassed nationally," Wilson said.
Joe Cannon, president of Geneva Steel and a GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1992, said Leavitt has been a credit to Utah "inside and outside the state."
Cannon travels often to Washington to sit on several national commissions and meets with business people across the country in his steel business.
"People (outside Utah) know Mike Leavitt's name and respect him," Cannon said. "He has great management skills and uses them effectively. But he also has a compassionate side that people are seeing."
But what Leavitt really has is "an energy level that I rarely see in anyone. He seems to be everywhere all the time," Cannon said.
Here are Leavitt's major issues and promises made either during the 1992 campaign or soon after being elected, how he thinks he's done on them and how others view him:
ECONOMY: "Increase household income through creation of high-paying jobs."
Personal income has grown in Utah over the past two years. But it's unclear if that is a result of Leavitt's economic-development efforts or just a booming economy.
For example, the 1995 Economic Report to the Governor, a study by government, academic and private business groups, says Utah's healthy economic growth over the past seven years is driven by "market forces and not by public-policy intervention."
The Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Utah says personal income in Utah rose by 6.9 percent in 1993 and 8.7 percent in 1994. However, considering other factors, "the average wage per job did not keep pace with inflation" over the past two years.
"I never believed government is the reason economies ebb and flow," Leavitt said. But government, through low tax rates and effective management, can create a good business climate - like Utah's, he said.
"I drove down State Street the other day and a fast-food place had a sign: `Help Wanted, $6 an hour.' Now, it's hard to make a living on $6 an hour. But it's easier than at $4.25 an hour. A vibrant economy won't eliminate (low-income people). But it certainly enhances their position. A rising tide does lift all boats," Leavitt said.
SCHOOLS: "Create a world-class education system to prepare students for high-paying jobs."
Leavitt said all along that Utahns, especially teachers, can't expect to match, dollar-for-dollar, student-for-student, spending with other, richer states.
He has pushed for more money for education. The state's minimum school program grew by 7.51 percent in the 1994-95 budget and 6.59 percent in 1995-96. But school budgets grew faster during some years of Bangerter's administration.
Leavitt's pride and joy in education is his Centennial Schools. "Centennial Schools aren't about money, either," Leavitt says. Rather, Centennial Schools - now numbering about 200 of the 700 grade schools in the state - get state grants to set up technology, community-participation and other special programs aimed at enhancing the school's product - educating kids to get competitive jobs.
Part of Leavitt's plan is to have children advance only when they prove competency with a subject - not just get passing grades on general subjects. He calls it competency-based education and wants high school students who are ready for college courses to get them, even before they go to college.
Teachers aren't completely sold on Leavitt. "It's really a mixed issue for teachers," said Lily Esk-el-sen, Utah Education Association president. "On the one hand, we have to say we have a governor who has a more ambitious plan for education than we had with the previous administration.
"We have seen things like aid for highly impacted schools. We've seen a continuation of class-size reduction into the fourth grade. We've seen a boom into technology like no one has ever seen. I think with Governor Leavitt you have a sympathetic ear on public schools, one that will not succumb to gimmicks like vouchers.
"But we're still taking baby steps in the right direction. We're yet to see giant leaps in the right direction for childrenkind," Eskelsen said.
And Gayle Ruzicka of Utah Eagle Forum, a conservative family-values group, says Leavitt's "competency based" education is really "outcome-based" education. "And we're really taking him on on it. His Centennial School program isn't good for the state, our children, our families," she said.
College students haven't fared well yet under Leavitt, and he acknowledges that.
"When I was on the Board of Regents (which governs the public universities), it was decided that students for the immediate future would have to bear a greater burden (tuition hikes) of their education," he said. He's basically followed that plan, while pushing and funding the state's "electronic highway" so all kinds of students can get higher-education classes without sitting in a classroom.
During the last four years of the Bangerter administration, college tuition increased an average of 6.1 percent a year - well above local inflation. In the three budget years of Leavitt's administration, tuition is up less, an average 5.32 percent, but still more than inflation.
LIFESTYLE: "Preserve Utah as the quality-of-life state - clean and safe."
Mixed reactions here.
Many leaders in rural Utah love Leavitt's fight against federal mandates, especially on endangered-species protection and restricting grazing on federal land.
But a number of environmentalists think Leavitt is being short-sighted, even dangerous, in his approach to wilderness-land designation and clean water and air requirements.
"His environmental stance has been pretty hollow," said Ivan Weber, a committee chairman for the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club. "It's irresponsible and so ideologically driven, it's going to be difficult to reverse it with reason."
He also criticized the governor for easing sale of school trust lands before all archaeological and paleontological resources are surveyed, failing to take a stand in favor of light-rail mass transit, supporting dams on the Bear River without first developing strict water-conservation programs in cities, and pushing for the Environmental Protection Agency to relax its enforcement of ozone regulations along the Wasatch Front.
On the safety front - fighting crime - Leavitt called a special legislative session in October 1993 and got a number of crime-fighting items passed. But his promise to get many troubled youths into "work camps" hasn't happened yet. Money has been appropriated and a pilot program started. "Nothing moves as fast (on youth crime) as I'd like," he said.
WELFARE: "Foster self-reliance while providing a safety net for the truly needy."
Of all the Human Services problems, foster care is the toughest. Under Leavitt's leadership - and prodded by settlement of a major lawsuit - the Legislature provided major funding for the ailing child-protection system.
But the National Center for Youth Law, which filed that suit, says Utah hasn't followed through on its promises. Advocates for children say the system is better than it was but still needs major work.
"Foster care is the hardest problem I have, I think," Leavitt admits.
Advocates say the two budgets Leavitt has proposed have shown great concern for, and understanding of, the needs of the poor and otherwise-disadvantaged people - even if legislators have reduced his budgets.
"I think his understanding of what pieces of the safety net were in need of repair in some cases was right on," said Shirley Weathers of Utah Issues and the Human Services Coalition. "There's evidence he studied where it needed shoring up and set out to do that."
And Joe Duke-Rosati, Salt Lake Community Action Program, credits Leavitt with saving the Emergency Work Program, which pays participants $65 a week for 32 hours of work and eight of job search. Many of them have no other incomes.
But Utah Children's Rosalind McGee said the governor hasn't gone far enough in support of children. More money is needed for at-risk student programs.
TAXES: No tax increases, and don't let state government grow faster than inflation and population.
On the first, Leavitt has come through. He vetoed a small property-tax increase in 1993 and helped cut taxes in 1994 and 1995.
But he has recommended budgets in 1994 and 1995 that grew faster than inflation and population. It's a sensitive subject with Leavitt, who gets tired of arguing statistics with conservative GOP legislators and with news reporters.
The state's general fund and Uniform School Fund are fueled by state income, sales and property taxes. Those funds are growing faster than inflation and population, conservative legislators say, and statistics bear that out.
Leavitt, in the two budgets he's recommended - fiscal years 1995 and 1996 - suggested spending 8.62 percent higher in fiscal '95 and 8.96 percent in '96 than budgets approved by lawmakers the years before.
Using local inflation figures supplied by Kelly Matthews, chief economist for First Security Bank, and population figures supplied by the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic Research, inflation and population growth was 7.51 percent in 1993 and 7.18 percent in 1994.
Leavitt argues with the numbers. But that aside, Leavitt said that when he made the campaign pledge, "I had no idea we'd be in a period (where state officials would) not be as concerned with too much spending as we would be with growth in revenues." In other words, unanticipated taxes have flowed into the state because of Utah's exceptional economy.
"But in a time when you have 50,000 new jobs a year coming into the economy, we've seen investment opportunities" - higher spending on education, the electronic highway, etc. "We've done the right thing" in spending more now, anticipating a natural downturn later. With a smile, Leavitt says at the end of his administration - six, 10 years away? - "that pledge will be sound."
ABORTION: Push the envelope on anti-abortion laws and stretch the U.S. Supreme Court with pro-life laws that have a good chance to succeed.
Abortion may be the area of greatest promise and most disappointment. But also it is the area where Wilson says Leavitt has been a responsible, moderate Republican.
In a heated 1992 GOP primary campaign where Leavitt was stressing his conservatism, Leavitt promised to push for tougher anti-abortion laws.
But "he has done poorly," said Eagle Forum's Ruzicka. "Even though thousands of pro-life citizens pleaded with him, he dropped" a side appeal to the state's 1991 anti-abortion law, Ruzicka said. Pro-life advocates "have still not forgotten, nor forgiven" Leavitt for that.
Rep. Robert Killpack, R-Murray, dropped two anti-abortion bills in the 1995 legislative session after saying the Leavitt admin-istration and GOP leadership asked him not to pursue them.
Leavitt did keep his promise to deny state Medicaid funding for abortions for victims of rape or incest. Utah faces federal sanctions or lawsuits because of it.
"Let's just say I've pushed the envelope as far as I thought it could be pushed," Leavitt said curtly when asked about the abortion issue.
FEDERALISM: Fight for states' rights.
Leavitt said in 1992 that he wanted to lead a new federal revolution, but few understood what he meant or believed he'd really do it.
He has. But Leavitt's "Conference of the States," where leaders from all 50 states are to meet and discuss taking power away from the federal government, is now a political muddy street for Leavitt.
"He's putting more emotional and intellectual effort into the states-rights movement than he is in helping his state be prepared for present and future growth that could have a much more negative impact on us," Salt Lake City's Reid said.
The Conference of the States could lead to a constitutional convention, and conservative groups around the nation will oppose that to the end, says Ruzicka. Eagle Forum's "telephone trees" are working overtime in every state whose legislature is considering Leavitt's conference. "And we're beating him in those states, and unless he changes how the conference will work, we will defeat him," she said.
HEALTH-CARE: Lead the states in health-care reform
Leavitt says his HealthPrint plan may be moving more slowly than he likes or anticipated, but it is "still on track." However, the track shows a greater deviation from any other promises he's made.
First, Leavitt promised a "jury" - devoid of special interests like doctors, hospitals and insurance companies - would come up with three alternatives; a public vote would decide the plan. He quickly backed away from that when lawmakers complained of being left out of the process and special-interest groups howled.
Then he said the jury would present a plan to him and the Legislature, to be adopted or rejected in whole. Then the public would vote on that.
Finally, the jury ended up making recommendations, which Leavitt changed. The Legislature made further changes. And Leavitt never had HealthPrint go to voters at all.
Leavitt says the "genius" of his original process was it scared the heck out of health-care special-interest groups. "They came to the table" to work out compromises in a responsible manner. Without the threat of a public vote - a vote much more difficult to influence than the 104-member Legislature - health reform in Utah would have failed, as it did in Congress and in many other states.
Advocates of health-care reform say Leavitt kept his promise to get involved. "The HealthPrint is going excruciatingly slow, but it's going," said Bill Walsh, director of Utah Issues. "There has been measurable progress."
Deseret News/KSL poll
Do you approve or disapprove of the job performance of Gov. Mike Leavitt?
STRONGLY APPROVE 45%
SOMEWHAT APPROVE 38%
SOMEWHAT DISAPPROVE 5%
STRONGLY DISAPPROVE 4%
DON'T KNOW 9%
Leavitt is planning his 1996 re-election campaign. No Democratic candidate has yet announced. Do you think Leavitt should run for re-election, or is it time to give someone else a chance?
RUN FOR RE-ELECTION 76%
SOMEONE ELSE 15%
DON'T KNOW 9%
Assuming Leavitt runs, would you vote for him or vote for someone else?
DEFINITELY LEAVITT 36%
PROBABLY LEAVITT 22%
PROBABLY SOMEONE ELSE 6%
DEFINITELY SOMEONE ELSE 7%
DEPENDS ON WHO RUNS 22%
DON'T KNOW 8%
Poll conducted March 28-29, 1995. Margin of error +/-4% on interviews of 607 adults statewide. Conducted by Dan Jones & Associates. Copyright 1995 Deseret News.