This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Editor's note • Robert Gehrke, previously The Salt Lake Tribune's senior government reporter, is now a columnist. Catch his take on the state, its politics and its people each Wednesday and when news breaks throughout the week.
As Gary Herbert takes the oath of office at least ceremonially in an elaborate, pomp-filled spectacle at the Capitol on Wednesday, he's essentially being handed the keys to a souped-up monster truck.
He can take this thing barreling around anywhere he wants. But so far he only seems interested in taking it out of the garage to run the same mundane errands he has for the last 7½ years. Like a trip to the grocery. For boring stuff. Like milk and maybe kale.
Yes, it is true that Forbes and other publications have repeatedly named Utah as the Best Managed State. And that's exactly what Herbert has been thus far a manager and he has been content in making sure the government machine keeps ticking.
"I think we certainly have the vast majority of people of Utah [who] like what we've been doing and what we've done and what we've accomplished," he told me recently. "And expect some more of the same going forward."
Whoa. Let's ratchet down the excitement a bit there.
In acting as the faithful caretaker of the office, however, Herbert runs the risk of missing a golden opportunity to define his own legacy.
Think about it: He won re-election by a massive 38-point margin, after crushing his Republican challenger by 44 points. He has promised not to run again, freeing him of having to kowtow to the party's strident delegates. And with Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress, he doesn't need to worry about fighting with the Obama administration.
Herbert has a limitless supply of political capital, endless opportunity, but has provided no clear vision for how or if he wants to use it.
And that's a shame, because Utahns are hungry for leadership.
It's manifest in the last three years as groups stymied by inaction turn to ballot initiatives as the only option for change first the Count My Vote election reform, now the bid to raise taxes to fund education and the likely push to legalize medical marijuana.
The governor can seize this opportunity to go beyond being the manager and lead on a few fronts where he would have overwhelming public support:
• Herbert says he wants Utah schools to be the best in the nation, but that talk is torpedoed by classroom funding that is the absolute worst. He hopes Utah can grow out of last place, but acknowledges it will take years, attributing the problem to big families not to the $1.2 billion that the Utah Foundation recently reported has been diverted from education by years of tax cutting.
It's so bad that the state's most prominent business leaders have formed Our Schools Now seeking a ballot initiative to hike taxes to pump $750 million into education. The public supports it by a wide margin. Herbert opposes it, but there is room for the governor to find middle ground, either backing a smaller increase or focusing it on those making more than $200,000 who benefited most from Utah's flat tax and economic growth.
The Our Schools Now initiative is giving the governor an opportunity to throw his support behind what could be a generational shift in Utah's public education system, if he chooses to take it.
• The divide between urban and rural Utah is as stark as ever. While unemployment in under 3 percent in Salt Lake County, it is more than double that across much of rural Utah. But of the more than $100 million in state incentives dangled in front of businesses to get them to locate in Utah, nearly 90 percent of it has been committed between Ogden and Payson.
There are other grants that go to mom-and-pop businesses and to lure movies and television production to rural Utah, but more needs to be done to ensure rural parts of the state share in the Wasatch Front's prosperity.
• Utah's filthy air is becoming a major hindrance to businesses that want to locate in Utah and the public is fed up. Some steps, particularly Tesoro's agreement to bring cleaner-burning fuel to the state, have been positive. Herbert can lead in extending the electric-vehicle tax credit (due to expire this year), upgrading school buses, pushing for more transit funding, and demanding accountability when areas fall short of their air-quality targets.
• Herbert has boasted how he has wiped out useless regulations, but Utah's liquor laws are still a pointless embarrassment. The governor can show leadership by tearing down the Zion Curtain and throwing out other obstructionist rules.
After all, what's the point of having a monster truck if you aren't willing to take it for a spin?
email@example.com Twitter: @RobertGehrke