Taxes, education and air quality.
Those are three key issues facing the state that Gov. Gary Herbert tackled in his 2019 State of the State address Wednesday night in the state House of Representative chambers on Capitol Hill.
Despite “polarization and dysfunction in Washington, D.C.,” Herbert reported that “2018 was indeed a banner year of accelerated economic growth and prosperity. “So I am pleased to report to you tonight that in spite of challenges, the state of our state is strong, it is resilient, and our outlook is very bright,” he said.
Utah’s economy is the healthiest and most diverse economy in the nation today, according to Herbert.
“Because of the attraction of our strong economy, our biggest challenge now is growth, that if we don’t accommodate, will have a negative impact on our quality of life,” he said.
With a surplus of over $1 billion, Herbert said it is time to pay down debt, invest in the future and return $225 million to taxpayers.
Herbert’s tax proposal is to lower the state sales tax rate from 4.85 percent to 1.75 percent while extending the sale tax to include more services previously exempt from the sales tax.
“That is a tax cut of $225 million, especially benefitting lower and middle income families,” he said. “This would mean that nearly nine out of 10 taxpayers will pay less sales tax tomorrow than they pay today.”
The extension of the sales tax would broaden the tax’s base from 40 percent of the economy to 70 percent, creating a more stable and fair source of revenue, according to Herbert.
“We still tax the sale of buggy whips, even though they don’t generate much revenue,” Herbert said. “Meanwhile, an Uber or Lyft ride is tax exempt.”
Along with funding the costs associated with the growing number of students and increasing the state’s per pupil funding for public schools, Herbert proposed several other specific investments in education.
Herbert proposed spending $30 million on counseling and mental health services. He called for $100 million in upgrades to school facilities with two-thirds of that going toward school security.
Herbert also called for an endowment of $50 million toward a scholarship fund for financially disadvantaged college students.
He also called for robust computer science courses in middle schools and the inclusion of basic free-market economics in high school financial literacy classes.
“It is imperative that Utah high school graduates understand not only their civic responsibility and the principles of our nation’s founding and constitution, but also the basic economic principles of free-market capitalism that have made America great,” Herbert said.
When it comes to clearing the air, Herbert wants to start with the state, as one of Utah’s largest employers, setting the example.
“Let’s reduce the miles driven by state employees by increasing state employee use of transit and accountable telework,” Herbert said. “Let’s eliminate the dirtiest state vehicles and replace them with Tier 3 and electric automobiles. Let’s improve the energy efficiency of State buildings by using a revolving fund that replenishes itself through efficiencies gained.”
In addition, Herbert suggested an incentive for the public to pull aging dirty diesel vehicles off the road, to replace more than 5,000 wood burning stoves, and swap out 25,000 gasoline powered yard equipment for battery powered equipment.
Herbert also offered the creation of 300 electric vehicle chargers for public use at state facilities and providing incentives for 800 charging stations at private businesses.
“Our Division of Air Quality estimates that these actions taken together — many of which I hope will also be adopted by other employers — will reduce dangerous pollutants in our atmosphere by a total of 14,000 tons,” Herbert said. “That’s like taking more than 65,000 automobiles off the road annually, or the equivalent of all the registered automobiles in my home town of Orem.”
Herbert closed his address by recognizing the efforts of the workers who united the country by building the Transcontinental Railroad, with the final spike driven at Promontory Summit 150 years ago.
“So consider this,” he said. “The people who literally reunited our nation following the Civil War were the nation’s outcasts — freed slaves, Irish immigrants, exiled Mormons and underpaid Chinese workers, among others.”