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The surprises and predictions from Herbert’s last State of the State

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Members of the crowd watch as Gov. Gary Herbert delivers his State of the State address at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Gov. Gary Herbert delivered his 11th — and final — State of the State address last week. Because he is not seeking reelection, is Utah’s chief executive a “lame duck” or will he continue strong leadership and have a successful legislative session? We ruminate.

Were there any hits, misses or surprises in the governor’s address? What role can he play in the next year?

Pignanelli: “I hope to spend the remainder of my days in peaceful retirement, making political pursuits yield to the more rational amusement of cultivating the earth.” — George Washington  

The 1941 movie ”Citizen Kane” is heralded a classic, especially for infusing into the American lexicon the classic phrase ”He knows where the bodies are buried.” Herbert’s deep experience in local and state government provides him clear insight on details of issues that will be smoldering into this decade (aka buried bodies). Also, Herbert will enjoy hefty political capital and strong approval ratings until his successor is sworn in in 2021.

With these assets, Herbert can be invaluable distributing guide maps to the graves of festering problems such as overdue reforms in the higher education system, water infrastructure requirements, creative responses to growth demands, etc. Through various means including strong public statements and short-term priorities for his agencies, Herbert can set the agenda for next year.

In his speech Wednesday night, Herbert artfully thanked Utahns for their incredible commitment to a healthy and productive lifestyle. He appropriately listed accomplishments achieved by his administration, but also referred to the well-known ongoing concerns.

Now unshackled by normal political pressures, Herbert can enhance his legacy with the exhuming process.

Webb: It was a good, solid speech, reflective of Herbert’s time as governor. By the way, Herbert will be Utah’s second-longest serving governor, a tenure about a year less than Gov. Calvin Rampton’s 12 years from 1965 to 1977.

While there weren’t any real “moonshot” proposals in Herbert’s speech, it was still visionary and forward-looking. Herbert’s focus on clean air — and putting $100 million behind it — demonstrates real commitment. His proposal to put $34 million of state money into public transit, particularly into the at-capacity FrontRunner system is, I believe, the first time a governor has proposed spending significant state dollars on transit. His assertion that it ought to be as easy to use mass transit as it is to drive a car is a breakthrough in Utah gubernatorial priorities.

Herbert’s embrace of quality growth principles and the need to reconsider land use and zoning regulations, in addition to “reimagining” what housing will look like in the future, is progressive and farsighted.

His appeal to make Utah’s education system the best in the country is a clarion call, but it wasn’t backed up with sufficient funding. 

These themes will need to be carried forward by Utah’s next governor to cope with rapid population growth and continued urbanization.

Oodles (a scientific term) of candidates want to replace Herbert. How will they embrace or distance themselves from his administration?

Pignanelli: Gubernatorial contenders face a difficult challenge of political dexterity. Prior elections convincingly demonstrated the tactic of disparaging of Herbert always fails and just antagonizes voters. But Utahns are not expecting a carbon copy either.

A safe target is the now repealed tax reform bill and resulting referendum, so expect this as a tool of differentiation. Also expect multiple empty euphemisms such as “deep dive,” “trim the fat,” “streamlining” to be bloodied in their overuse.

So a successful candidate will highlight personal skills and attributes that subtly comfort voters a continuation of proven economic objectives. However, this will be contrasted with identification of selective problems that are best resolved through that individual’s abilities. General commitments to education and efficient government will not be enough — some specifics will be demanded.

Webb: Some of the governor’s would-be successors whisper that he has been a good manager, but not a visionary leader who took the state to new heights. That understates Hebert’s tenure. Utah’s remarkable success hasn’t occurred by luck or destiny. Utah’s good ride is the result of excellent leadership and hard work now and over many years, even preceding Herbert. If you coast for a minute, you lose. Competition out there is tough.

Herbert’s low-key leadership style is not given to flamboyance or self-aggrandizement, but has been very effective. 

Certainly, the next governor must outline how he or she will achieve higher summits in a new economy amid rapid growth. But it makes no sense for candidates to downplay Herbert’s successes. Especially because most of them haven’t yet walked the walk. Talk is easy. 

How will Herbert’s impending retirement impact the relationship between lawmakers and the governor this session and for the remainder of his term?

Pignanelli: Most Utahns concur our state is on an incredible trajectory, with Herbert as the acknowledged pilot. Although a “lame duck,” lawmakers understand Herbert’s political capital can still be leveraged for immediate projects and endeavors.

Webb: Legislators need Herbert’s signature unless they can muster a veto override, which is exceedingly rare. He wields a big stick.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.