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Gov. Gary Herbert now heads National Governors Association

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert attends a news conference during the National Governor's Association Winter Meeting in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert attends a news conference during the National Governor's Association Winter Meeting in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014.
Cliff Owen, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert became chairman of the National Governors Association on Saturday, announcing an agenda aimed at showcasing why states are better than the federal government when it comes to solving the nation's problems.

"We want to change the discussion and have the people of America look to the states first and foremost," Herbert told the Deseret News. "Most everybody, particularly governors, understand federal overreach. There's just too much of it."

Herbert's "Finding Solutions, Improving Lives" initiative is intended to let the nation see how governors in all 50 states have handled various challenges without turning to Washington, D.C.

"We're a lot more mobile. We're a lot more adept at solving problems and getting things done in a relatively short order. The federal government is just the opposite," he said. "They're terrible. Washington, D.C., as we all know, is pretty dysfunctional."

The governor said his new position will also bring more attention to the Beehive State during his term as the leader of the organization that speaks on behalf of the chief executives of states throughout the country.

"It's exciting and it's an opportunity not just for me, but particularly for Utah to be kind of front and center on a little more of a national stage," Herbert said. "We have a lot to share."

Herbert was chosen by his peers last year as the association's vice chairman, putting him in line to take over the top spot at the governors' annual summer meeting, being held this year in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, stepped down as chairman. The association named Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, as vice chairman.

Herbert said his initiative should not be seen as partisan, even though it's Republicans who are associated with promoting federalism, often referred to as states rights.

"I think it will be embraced across the board," the governor said. "We understand our backyards better than the people in Washington. That's a universal concept that Democrats, Republicans and independents alike agree on."

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it's difficult to discuss states' rights without partisan and racial issues surfacing.

States' rights were at the center of the recent debate that led to the Confederate battle flag being removed from the grounds of the South Carolina State house earlier this month after a mass shooting at a historic black church in that state left nine dead.

"States' rights, in the South especially, those arguments have been accompanied by racial issues certainly since during the time of the civil rights movement, and going all the way back to the Civil War," and even before, Karpowitz said.

"It's going to be hard to fully disentangle those things because in certain regions of the country and for certain kinds of voters, those issues are deeply intertwined," the political science professor said.

He said while political parties have shifted their stances on states' rights over the decades, Republicans are championing it now, while Democrats, in part because of the battle over civil rights, are more likely to see the need for federal involvement.

Still, Karpowitz said, it can be helpful to continue talking about the roles of states versus the federal government, even though it's probably not possible to completely separate states rights from efforts to resist racial change.

"I don't think we can pretend that history doesn't exist, but it's certainly productive to find ways of reinvigorating the discussion," he said, if it's "a sincere effort to address issues both Republicans and Democrats, and whites and blacks, care about."

The governor said he prefers to talk about federalism, not states rights.

"Rights go to people. Powers are given to the government, so it's not a matter of states' rights. I know we use the term all the time, and I've used it, too," Herbert said. "That's what we're talking about, the powers of government."

His initiative, he said, should not be associated with the negative aspects of states' rights.

"We're not going to let it be framed that way. That's not what our intent is here. We don't want anyone to distort what we are saying about looking to the states for solutions," the governor said.

"We understand the importance of civil rights and the important role the federal government has as well as the Supreme Court. Certainly, there's some differences of opinion," he said, as evidenced by split decisions by the high court.

The issues the governor said he wants to focus on include Utah's new law that protects both religious freedom and the state's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community from discrimination in housing and employment.

"We've found a way to bring both sides together on a piece of legislation that has had minimal discomfort," Herbert said. "This is an example of states finding the solution, and what happens is other states will copy the success."

And that's the goal of his initiative, the governor said, sharing successes.

"Whatever the issues are that we the people think need to be addressed by government, they should first look to their states," Herbert said. "We don't like the one-size-fits-all mandate that comes out of Washington, D.C."

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