Speaker Wilson, President Adams, legislators, justices of the Utah Supreme Court, Lt. Governor and Gabe Henderson, First Lady Abby and my fellow Utahns: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to address you this evening.
Not far from where we are seated tonight sits one of Utah’s most recognizable landmarks: the Salt Lake Temple. Construction began in 1853 with progress agonizingly slow as the large granite blocks had to be quarried 20 miles away. It took four days to haul each individual stone to the construction site.
And then the unthinkable. After 10 years of painstaking labor, workers noticed that the foundation stones were cracking.
I can’t even begin to imagine how devastated those settlers felt. I’m sure they desperately wanted to just move forward. Surely there had to be another way. But they knew that such an important building for them would never stand the test of time if the foundation was not sure.
And so, with grit and renewed determination they did what they knew they had to do. They made the gut-wrenching decision to start over. It took another 30 years to complete, but 130 years later that building still stands as a tribute to their sacrifice and tenacity.
Today, if you drive by that iconic building you can actually see some of those stones, because that foundation is once again under construction. Even though the building and structure are in perfect condition, the decision was made to use new technology to fortify the foundation against a catastrophic earthquake. This building where we meet tonight has gone through a similar renovation. You see, here in Utah, we build things to last. And when we learn a better way to do the job, we start back over and we build it again.
Tonight, we find ourselves in a similar period of building and rebuilding. We meet in an extraordinary place in extraordinary times. So much has changed because of this pandemic.
Even the nature of this speech has changed to keep people safe. Every one of you has been tested for a virus we knew little to nothing about one year ago. You are wearing masks. The galleries are empty. Your spouses and guests and staff are all watching from home.
I’ve also significantly shortened this speech from its usual length, making it, we believe, the shortest State of the State speech in Utah history (something most of you will see as a rare silver lining of the pandemic and worthy of a Norm Thurston standing ovation in better times). And in the name of brevity, I’ve even removed the carefully orchestrated applause lines … which probably wouldn’t work anyway without some strategically placed staffers — Mike Mower — to remind you when to clap.
But of course, these modifications pale in comparison to the incredible changes and innovations and sacrifices made by the people of Utah over the past year. More than 1,500 Utahns are not with us tonight because of this insidious disease.
Our healthcare professionals, public health servants, first responders, businesses, workers, seniors and children … truly every single citizen of this state has made enormous sacrifices to save lives and keep our economy open.
Tonight we salute you and say to all Utahns that help is on the way. Vaccines are being administered as we speak. The changes we have made to vaccine distribution are working and the end to this pandemic is in sight.
And as we speak of sacrifices made, can I say a word about our teachers? Never in the history of our state have we felt your influence or needed you more than right now. You have pivoted on a dime and figured out ways to do what seemed impossible.
In one school — with an extremely high-risk teacher — school officials actually figured out a way to repurpose a classroom that had a room within a room…one with glass windows, to keep the teacher safe. Every day that teacher enters his room and stands behind those glass windows with a microphone and speakers so he can see his students — including my son — through that glass and teach them in person…while his own children have to take classes online at home to protect their Dad.
That teacher is my brother. And he represents every one of our teachers who has worked themselves to the bone to keep our kids safe and keep them from falling behind.
They deserve our respect. And they deserve a raise. I’m grateful to you legislators who agree and have pledged historic education funding this year, including $112 million dollars in bonuses for our teachers. In addition, I have proposed a nearly 6% increase in our state’s education funding — more than $400 million in all.
And while I just referred to these investments as “historic,” I’m looking forward to them becoming routine.
Now, it would be easy — and I can tell you it is very tempting — to stand here tonight and talk about all the good things that are happening in Utah and the accolades that continue to come our way. There is certainly plenty to share. I mean, our economy is far better off than anyone expected as we continue to lead the nation in job and population growth. Having the highest rate of upward mobility and the second lowest rate of poverty are definitely things to celebrate.
But I don’t believe the people of Utah elected us to pat ourselves on the back.
A wise person once said that we should go into government “to do,” not “to be.” And this pandemic has shown us that, after celebrating 125 years of statehood, there may be some cracks in our foundation that need attention.
The Constitution of our state guarantees a high quality education, and yet, I fear, that is not happening in every corner of our state. We all agree that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish. There is nothing controversial there. However, in many of our more affluent neighborhoods we teach kids how to fish and give them a speedboat, a graphite rod and a Fish Finder. And you know what? Those kids can fish.
But in too many of our rural communities and communities of color we give kids a stick and a string…and then we can’t figure out why they don’t catch as many fish.
Education has always been called the great equalizer, but it can’t be that way if our kids are not treated equally.
Ladies and gentlemen, I truly believe that this concept of educational equity is at the heart of so much of the pain and division in our country right now. A high-quality education can change everything.
It’s the key to unlocking intergenerational poverty. It’s the key to disrupting the criminal justice pipeline. It’s the key to unlocking the American Dream. And it’s the right thing to do.
But it’s hard. It means replacing some of those foundation stones that are cracking. It means changing the way we fund schools. It means challenging some of our long-held assumptions and setting aside what may be good for your own individual school and district to instead support the best interests of the entire state.
Those are tough choices.
Over the past year we have had some critical conversations around race and justice. And if I can be so bold, putting up a sign or joining a rally isn’t enough. The best way we can bring to life the American promise — of liberty and justice for all — is to make sure that every single child, brown or Black, rural or urban has the same opportunity as every other child.
You see, in Utah it shouldn’t matter what side of I-15 you were born on — or in my case, on what side of the Payson-Dixon line you happen to live — every child in this state deserves a great education from a high-quality, well-compensated teacher. I ask you to join me in this effort.
Now, our state continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. With this growth comes additional challenges. Air quality, transportation, water and the cost of housing are all the types of foundational cracks that could derail our success and the opportunities for future generations. In the spirit of brevity tonight, I would encourage each of you to read our recently published One Utah Roadmap, a Plan for the First 500 Days of the Cox-Henderson Administration with detailed goals and initiatives to deal with these issues and strengthen our foundation.
And like those past leaders, we have a duty to make the hard and smart decisions that will improve our future. In fact, thanks to the past actions of many in this room and my predecessor Governor Gary Herbert, this legislative session we have the most unique of opportunities: a chance to reduce taxes AND provide historic investments for infrastructure.
By providing an $80 million tax cut targeted at senior citizens and Utah families, we can improve the quality of life for scores of Utahns, while simultaneously investing significant new funding for transportation, water, recreation and broadband infrastructure that will benefit every Utahn on and off the Wasatch Front for generations to come.
These investments will finally make it possible to stop exporting our kids to other places — from rural Utah because we lack jobs, and from the Wasatch Front because they can’t afford to live here.
But the greatest infrastructure investment of all, is investing in our people. All the jobs in the world are meaningless if our people aren’t qualified for those jobs. Job growth or GDP growth must never be seen as an end in itself. Economic growth is merely a means to an end … and that end is that the people of Utah can achieve the American dream.
To help accomplish that goal, I have proposed significant increases in job training, up-skilling and more money for our trade and technical educational institutions. We must overcome once and for all this terrible idea that every child needs a bachelor’s degree to be successful. It’s bad for our kids and it’s bad for our economy. Helping our children — and adults — find the pathway that is right for them will strengthen families and our economy.
The last foundational crack I want to address is that of contempt, tribalism and discord that has rocked our nation over the past few weeks. I have spoken of it often, but tonight only offer up a reminder of the oaths which those of us in this room have taken — to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
The Preamble of that sacred document announces that the purpose of the Constitution is “to form a more perfect Union.” Judge Thomas Griffith has wisely stated that, “When politicians and judges like us take an oath to uphold the Constitution, we commit to work for unity; we make a solemn pledge that we will not be agents of division. This vow to work for unity,” he concluded, “is more than gauzy sentimentality or merely a call for civility in our public discourse. Instead, it is a studied and determined choice to work at union.”
That, of course, does not mean that we should never disagree. I’m going to veto some of your bills. Probably more than my predecessors. Please don’t take it personally.
You are going to override some of those vetoes. I promise not to take that personally. It doesn’t mean that I’m bad or you’re weak. It is simply part of a process. A gloriously messy and inspired process.
But there must be no room for contempt or hate. We are friends. We must always be friends.
Now, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about fixing the cracks in our foundation. But let me be clear. Government was never designed to solve all of our problems. I don’t mean that as a partisan or political statement, but as something I have seen up close and personal for many years.
The founders of our state and nation understood this. It’s not government that makes our country special. It’s volunteer organizations and churches and philanthropists and neighbors taking care of each other and solving problems so government doesn’t have to.
In short, if we want smaller government, we need bigger people.
Instead of protesting at a healthcare leader’s personal residence, consider taking some time to volunteer at the local food bank. Instead of posting on Facebook, walk across the street to check on your neighbor. Instead of listening to another talking (screaming) head on cable news, try listening to a new friend who looks or thinks a little differently than you.
My fellow Utahns let me conclude with one more brief story from those early rugged settlers of our state. As a group of pioneers on their way to Utah were crossing a particularly difficult patch of land, the wagon of the first Territorial Governor Brigham Young and several others got stuck in a sandbar. Undaunted, a faithful member of the group asked if they should pray. To which he replied, “Pray? We prayed this morning. Let’s push.”
Ladies and gentlemen, now is our time to be bold in tackling the tough issues. Now is our time to be fearless in examining our flaws. Now is our time to reject hate and make opportunity available to all Utahns. Now … is our time to push.
My friends, the state of our State is hopeful. And the state of our State is resilient. May God bless each of you. And may God bless the Great State of Utah.