Earlier this week, Governor Gary Herbert addressed government officials and members of the public to deliver his annual “State of the State” address. He touched on education, Medicaid expansion, criminal justice reform, and religious liberty, among other issues. Below, we present the real state of the state—one that does not rely, in whole or in part, upon politically popular issues that poll well with key constituencies.
The Governor stated last night, “We will never back away from… the constant overreach of the federal government. If states fail to stand up and speak out for our right to self-determination, we will lose that right to an ever-expanding federal bureaucracy.” Yet, this same governor has championed two issues that further intertwine Utah with D.C.: Common Core (which the Dept. of Education incentivized through a grant opportunity, and which the Obama administration has championed), and Healthy Utah (the Medicaid expansion program that would bring hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars—and the inevitable strings—to the state.
Political leaders in Utah must match their walk to their talk; rhetoric is hollow. A state that receives $22 billion in federal money each year—federal funds comprise 32.8% of the state’s budget—is unlikely to understand (let alone exercise) its “right to self-determination.” Federalism will be an impotent issue until if and when Utahns and their elected officials are willing to make hard decisions and forgo federal funding.
Criminal Justice reform
For months, government officials in Utah have been engaged in studies regarding criminal justice in order to propose recommendations to the law in order to reduce recidivism, make the process more efficient, and, in general, take a smarter, data-driven approach to the issue.
This laudable effort will bring some important reform—but much, much more is needed. In Utah, there are over 10,000 crimes that you can be charged with at the state and local level. Only 5% of these are designed to prohibit offenses against person or property—the most legitimate of all government laws. On average, the Utah legislature creates 34 new crimes a year.
It is of little use to make a bad system more efficient. While we support the reform effort, including the proposal to reclassify simple drug possession from a third degree felony (which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison) to a class A misdemeanor (which carries a penalty of only up to one year in jail), Utahns should not buy onto the fact that the criminal justice would magically become fair or justice if this year’s reforms pass.
Last night the Governor announced that “we” (meaning, taxpayers) “have the means to increase our education investment by approximately $500 million in new money.” He further noted that this expenditure would be “the largest true increase in student funding… in 25 years, raising the total of new money going to education over the past four years to $1.3 billion.” Many in government believe that problems or poor performance can be corrected, or at least improved, if only there were more money to do so. Forcing taxpayers to continually throw money at this institution is unlikely to substantively increase the knowledge, skills, creativity, curiosity, self-discipline, or motivation of children attending government schools in Utah.
The Governor and the education establishment continue to proclaim the wonderfulness of Common Core (or, as they’ve rebranded it, Utah Core)—this despite the fact that the new standards, which have now been implemented in the state, are far-reaching and completely untested. Our lawsuit challenging the state’s adoption of Common Core is pending in district court and will have a hearing this spring.
Over the past five years, police officers have killed more Utahns than gang members, drug dealers, or child abusers have. 13 Utahns were killed by officers last year, and already this year two people have been killed by officers. Of course, many of these shootings were justified and necessary; officers, like the citizens who employ them, have the right to defend themselves. Not all of these shootings, however, were both justified (authorized by law) and necessary (unable to be prevented).
For that reason, reform is needed to ensure that officers receive adequate and ongoing de-escalation training, that the authority given to officers is appropriate and includes adequate protections for individual rights, and that there is adequate and effective transparency and proper oversight to provide public confidence in the process.
Fourth Amendment Protections
Due to our work in last year’s legislative session, Utah has been positioned as a leader among the several states in police reform, law enforcement transparency, and electronic data privacy. More work is needed, and several bills in this legislative session will attempt to strengthen legal protections in Utah even further.
Sadly, Utah has a constant reminder of how our privacy is institutionally violated by government. The Utah Data Center, which political leaders including Governor Herbert have long championed, is the repository of harvested information collected about U.S. citizens and other people not suspected of any crime. Instead of expressing concern with what Utahns are compelled to support and subsidize—through reduced fees for the facility’s water supply—or concern about the broken promise that the facility would not be used for unconstitutional activity, little political will exists to push back against the NSA. Today, Utahns (and Americans generally) are reaping what they have long sown.
The state of Utah often receives accolades for being great for business—and rightly so, in many regards. There are many things that attract companies to migrate to Utah, including low costs, an educated workforce with fluency in a variety of second languages, the beauty of our natural surroundings, international airport, etc. Despite these incentives, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, along with counterpart economic development agencies at the county and city levels, use taxpayer dollars to court these companies into choosing Utah of another state—even though in many cases their incentives are not necessary.
Further, as in a recent case with Goldman Sachs, the government picks winners and losers by providing better perks (or any at all) to certain companies, while others do not qualify or merit, in the government’s view, the same benefits. This central planning of economic development is inconsistent with the free market required by the Utah Constitution, yet remains the bread and butter of Republican leadership in the state.
The Governor’s remarks focused on a few core issues, as does our own report. Brevity demands highlighting only a handful of topics, though by no means should be an indication of importance; the government violates life, liberty, and property in a variety of ways—many of them receiving little attention on the media. As such, we must remain jealous guardians of our rights, recognizing that the true “state of the state” is one in which the raw, overwhelming power of the government is rarely benevolent, and often oppressive. Utah is no exception to this easily proven rule.