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Utah’s admirable COVID-19 response should not blind us of our shortcomings

Legislative staff members prepare for the Utah Legislature’s virtual special session from the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 16, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

I read comments from an informed Utahn recently about our response to the pandemic that ended, “Utah stands alone as the best in the nation.” No doubt, Utah has done some excellent things in addressing the pandemic. The Utah Coronavirus Task Force has provided detailed information about how to avoid and reduce transmission of the virus. Daily press briefings with updated data have allowed us to track information that is crucial in making good decisions about where to allocate resources and the timing for reopening our state.

But there are ways in which we have made mistakes and continue to fall short. For example, I don’t believe we have yet struck the best balance between public health and business considerations in addressing COVID-19. But more generally, too often Utah’s political and cultural leaders simply refuse to acknowledge and talk openly about the ways in which we fall short.

I am not alone in saying that I have learned much more from reviewing, honestly and often painfully, my losses than I have from my wins. In politics particularly we are usually provided with many more “ain’t we great” self-congratulatory messages from our leaders than those in which elected officials identify, frankly and unsparingly, their (our) blunders. I understand why that happens. Those in charge need to persuade others, especially voters, that they are doing first-rate work.

We consistently hear from state leaders how exceptional Utah is. And Utah is exceptional; I wouldn’t live anywhere else. But we need to face up to the fact that there are many serious economic, cultural, racial, public health, legal and political issues on which Utah is a trailing state, not a leading state. For example, we still have a lot of work to do in getting past inequality. Racial profiling in criminal law, disparities in wages based on ethnicity and unequal opportunities for education all reveal gaps we need to bridge. Legislative resistance over many years to expanding Medicaid, despite support from the public, left hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable Utahns without access to health care. At the same time, it was fiscally irresponsible, leaving literally billions of dollars of federal tax dollars to be spent in other states, not Utah.

To face the future effectively, we need to identify and be willing to talk directly and specifically about our shortcomings. Refusing to acknowledge and discuss our missteps means our problems will never be addressed, much less improved or solved. Other states and countries are ahead of us on issues such as developing renewable energy, providing greater internet access to all their citizens and addressing climate change. We can borrow and learn from them to more adeptly solve our own problems. Utah has a wide variety of cultures and individuals with diverse experiences and perspectives that, when capably combined, will allow us to progress in improving our lives. We can do a better job of identifying and embracing new, different ideas to address our challenges, to create an environment that nourishes not just economic but social growth and harmony.

The best public servants are those who, despite the possibility that their efforts will go unsung, advocate for and implement policies based on evidence, best practices and the highest quality data available. These are leaders who put their own future careers on the line to do what is right rather than what is easy. They persist in the face of adversity; they admit their mistakes deal squarely with the fallout from them.

Elections are coming. Educate yourself. Vote for candidates with good character, intelligence and a commitment to address the needs of Utahns who are most vulnerable. Vote for people who are honest in their dealings with us. Vote for individuals with the humility to listen to and follow experts on specialized issues. Vote for leaders who will subordinate their own egos, self-interest, and ambitions to do what is best for the largest number of Utahns. Vote for candidates who will identify and work to address in the most effective way the compelling issues we face.

But above all, vote.

House Minority Leader Brian S. King, D-Salt Lake City, serves in the Utah Legislature as Representative of District 28.