SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's State of the State address delivered Wednesday night before the Utah Legislature detailed a potpourri of compelling challenges facing residents — education, air pollution, rural job growth and the need for more highly skilled workers.
While Herbert praised the successes and innovation in a number of those arenas, he also spoke somberly of societal problems affecting the state's most vulnerable populations that must be overcome.
"But before we talk about the peaks, let me say a few words about two of the very deep and shadowy valleys in our state's current landscape: drug addiction and homelessness," his speech noted.
Herbert later said the state must get on "top" of the problems of intergenerational poverty, teen suicide, homelessness and addiction.
The governor praised the local efforts taken by cities and law enforcement, but stressed state leaders stand willing to listen to recommendations.
"And let us, as a state, be emphatically clear that we will no longer tolerate the unconscionable drug trade that victimizes the most vulnerable in our community. Let us all agree tonight that this must absolutely stop," Herbert stressed, receiving a standing ovation.
Herbert pointed out that even as "daunting" as those challenges may be, there is much to celebrate in Utah, such as the state's robust economy and a drive to achieve educational excellence.
"If we will unite and focus, Utah can be at the top of the nation in student achievement," he said.
A cornerstone of his speech was the unveiling of a collaborative initiative to pair education with industry.
Herbert said Talent Ready Utah will help fill 40,000 high-skill, high-paying jobs over the next four years. The effort will be led by the Governor's Office of Economic Development, his education adviser, Tami Pyfer, and in partnership with the State Board of Education.
That collaboration, he added, will build on the state investment in education of $1.8 billion over the last five years.
The governor acknowledged the need to put more money in education to meet the needs of the fastest growing student population in the nation, but he noted his "concern" over altering tax policies that would impair the state's economy.
Herbert said the state would be best served by undertaking a robust examination of sales tax exemptions — which have blossomed from 48 to 89 since 1996 — and by taking a hard look at income tax credits.
In a press conference after Herbert's address, Utah's top Democrats said the governor's push for possible tax reforms fall far short of being able to deliver on the degree of funding needed by the education system.
"It's time the rubber hit the road," Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said. Herbert's praise of the state's 85 percent high school graduation rate still ignores those students left behind, Davis added.
The governor also touched on the economic challenges in rural Utah, urging state leaders to get behind the goal of creating 25,000 new jobs in the 25 counties off the Wasatch Front over the next four years.
"Reaching that goal will require unprecedented partnerships to grow and diversify the economy in rural Utah. To that end, I will work with Lt. Gov. Cox and the Rural Partnership Board, the private sector and you, the Legislature, to ensure that all Utahns have the same economic opportunities," he said.
In the arena of air quality, the governor conceded that the area's pollution woes are a concern given Utah's role as the fastest growing state in the nation.
"We will continue to fast track the arrival of cleaner fuels, cleaner cars and to get people to drive less and to conserve more," he said.
Herbert, pointing to Utah's rapid expansion of its transit system and the state's requirement of refinery and other industry investments in "best available" emission control technology, said he plans to tour the state to point out its successes.
"And along the way, I will also visit those organizations that need a little extra encouragement to help us make measurable improvements to our air quality," he said.
Afterward, House Minority Whip Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said it is true that the state has made "incremental" progress in improving air quality.
"But incremental progress is not enough," he said, pointing to the huge crowd that attended a clean air rally earlier this month at the state Capitol. Those crowds, he added, underscore the public's desire for more action.
"We can do more, we have to do more," added House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.
As for liquor law reform, Herbert said Utah needs to continue on its path of curtailing underage drinking, prevention of alcohol abuse and tackling impaired driving.
He said those efforts can continue without "stigmatizing" responsible adults' purchase and consumption of alcoholic drinks in dining establishments.
During the legislative session, he said, leaders will work to "keep and enhance what works for Utah and repeal what does not," indicating the state's notorious liquor barriers in restaurants might need to be peeled away.
Herbert also touched on the optimism that exists for a Washington, D.C., administration that appears willing to return power to the states.
"There is a renewed appreciation for the 10th Amendment and a realization that the states are truly the laboratories of democracy, the place where real solutions are developed to improve people's lives," he said.
Herbert ended on an uplifting note stressing his belief that Utah can conquer the challenges that lie ahead.
"Personally, I am committed to this trek, no matter how difficult the way," he said. "I am exhilarated by the challenge because I have never been more optimistic about Utah's prospect for success."
Contributing: Ryan Morgan