SALT LAKE CITY – Utah is on the road to economic recovery, Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday in his first State of the State speech since being elected governor.
"I get it — and I know that you get it, too," Herbert told the state senators and representatives gathered in the House chambers to hear his annual address. "As elected officials, each of us has been given a mandate and the voice of the Utah voter rings loud and clear: strengthen Utah's economy."
He pledged to focus on education, energy development, job creation and what he called "the spirit of self-determination" in the face of "federal domination" from Washington on health care and other issues.
"I firmly believe — if we as a state fail to vigorously fight to protect and defend our rights under the Constitution, those rights will invariably be seized and usurped by the federal government," Herbert said, admonishing Washington that Utah is "a state not a colony."
The words energized the many conservative lawmakers in the audience, who gave the governor a number of standing ovations throughout the speech.
"It's something the Legislature — you could tell by the applause — feels very strongly about," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said. She especially liked his use of the word "colony" to describe how Washington sees Utah. "That was a great line. I might use it."
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, appreciated the tough talk, too. "I'd have advised him to be even stronger," Waddoups said. "I think that's a message that resonates with the Legislature, and with the citizens of Utah, with western states in general and in fact, with most states."
Even Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said he appreciated hearing the governor's frustration in dealing with the federal government on public lands issues "and how it's important for us to assert our place in that conversation."
But House Minority Leader Dave Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said he did not like the turn the speech took. "The focus should be on doing what right for the states, and not state's rights," Litvack said. "And at the first part of the speech, that's where the focus was."
The governor noted in November's election, "the people sent a message that federal domination must give way to mutual collaboration."
Washington has ignored that mandate, Herbert said, describing how the U.S. Department of the Interior "secretly prepared an order to announce a new wild lands designation on public lands" without public input, a policy he called "flat-out wrong."
Herbert said it is also unacceptable that the federal government "intrudes in Utah classrooms, while it fails to protect and secure our borders." He said immigration reform is an example of where the states can step forward to fill the void left by federal inaction.
The governor called for everyone involved in immigration reform to remember to "respect each other — even when we disagree, to engage in civil dialog, to temper passion with reason" and to come up with the best outcome.
Litvack said it was important for the governor to talk about civility in the speech. "We have a responsibility to show the community that you can sit down and talk," the minority leader said. "I think the governor is setting that tone in his speech."
Herbert did not directly talk about the biggest issue separating him from his fellow Republicans this session — the state budget — other than to note his is keeping money in the Rainy Day fund. The majority party is calling for 7 percent across-the-board budget cuts, while the governor's $11.9 billion spending plan keeps state agencies intact.
His budget relies largely on continued economic growth to make up for lost federal stimulus funds and other one-time monies no longer available in the new budget year beginning July 1.
House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said it's still early in the budget process and the governor's decision not to stress his differences with lawmakers leaves room for negotiations.
"We understand where he's coming from," Hughes said. "We're optimistic. I think what you heard there is the optimism that we're going to come together."
Herbert said he hopes "the actions we take in this capitol, this session, will keep our state on the road to recovery and return Utah to prosperity," noting that while Utah "is not out of the woods yet," there are signs of economic recovery.
The governor highlighted the state's focus "on getting people back to work. We have made the tough choices. We streamlined services, we modernized and we became more efficient," he said, noting there is now one state employee for every 136 Utahns, fewer than when he became lieutenant governor in 2005.
Herbert, who took over the office in August 2009 when former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China, made jobs a key part of his campaign for the remaining two years of Huntsman's term.
His speech Wednesday was no different. He said job creation must be accelerated by increasing access to capitol for Utah businesses, helping rural companies and doubling the state's exports in the next five years.
Energy development and education, he said, are key to creating jobs. Herbert said the foundation of Utah's energy needs will come from fossil or nuclear fuels. The state, he said, must begin "substantive debate and deliberation of whether there is a place for nuclear energy in Utah."
The reference to nuclear power came as one of the few surprises in the speech. Waddoups said there isn't legislation yet dealing with nuclear power but "there probably will be now. I think with his leadership, we'll see where we need to go."
Funding schools, the governor said, must the state's No. 1 priority, citing the specific need to fund enrollment growth this session.
Early in the speech, Herbert acknowledged Brody Young, the state park ranger recovering from a shootout last November while on patrol near Moab, and asked that he and all peace officers be honored.
Utah's woman leaders were also recognized by Herbert, including two pioneers, former Gov. Olene Walker and Lockhart. "I am delighted to be the first governor to say, 'Congratulations, Madame Speaker," he said.
Lockhart said she didn't expect the mention. "It is what it is," she said. Unlike past speakers, she was not joined at the podium by her husband, Stan, because he is registered as a lobbyist and lobbyists are banned from the House floor.
Unlike his predecessors, Herbert was not holding a party for his friends and family after the speech. Instead, he was headed to Brigham Young University to watch the No. 9 Cougars play No. 4 San Diego State.
"Go Cougars," the governor joked during his pre-speech sound check late Wednesday afternoon. He had some more fun, announcing, "It's about guns, guns, and more guns."
Contributing: Amanda Verzello