SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Gov. Gary Herbert is once again making education, the economy and air quality top priorities for the coming year.
The Republican detailed his 2014 priorities for Utah on Wednesday evening in his fifth annual State of the State address to the Legislature.
Education was at the top of Herbert’s list last year and the focus of his budget proposal released in December.
In his 30-minute speech, he called on lawmakers to set aside $4.5 million for science, math and technology programs in schools. He also proposed spending $62 million in teacher raises and another $2 million to bolster job counseling for high school students.
“Today’s students have access to a world of information at their fingertips,” he said. “We need to ensure they also have access to the information that will put them on the path to success.”
Herbert said Utah’s economy is doing well and noted the state’s 4.1 percent unemployment rate, the lowest it has been since late 2008.
But the governor said the state still needs to expand its economy. State government will reach out to businesses to help increase Utah’s exports by $9 billion by the end of 2015, he said.
Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, praised the governor for naming education as a top priority but called for more spending on schools to bring the state closer to pre-recession levels.
Seelig, the Democratic leader in the House, said Utah also needs to consider raising its $7.25 minimum wage when looking at economic issues.
“We need to make opportunities for everyone willing to work,” she said. “Not just a small, select few.”
Herbert shied away from using Wednesday night’s speech to announce a plan on expanding Medicaid, a looming decision for the state. Under the federal health care law, states have the option of expanding eligibility for Medicaid, the state-federal program for low-income people. If states expand the program, the federal government has offered to pick up the full cost of Medicaid expansion through 2016 and 90 percent after that.
Herbert, a Republican, has said he has made a decision but has postponed announcing his plan. Republican officials in Utah have been reluctant to take up the offer to fully expand the program. They have cited concerns about the sticker price and whether federal budget strains may cause Washington not to hold up its end of the agreement.
Herbert said Wednesday that he looks forward to working with lawmakers to find a solution that supports private markets, maximizes flexibility and is in the best interest of taxpayers. “Assisting the poor in our state is a moral obligation that must be addressed,” he said.
Herbert also touched on same-sex marriage, an issue that has dominated Utah politics since a federal judge threw out the state’s gay marriage ban in December.
The governor said he’s committed to defending the ban but urged that the issue be handled with civility and respect.
“There is no place _ and I repeat, no place _ in our society for hatred and bigotry,” Herbert said to a standing ovation.
His comments came a day after hundreds of supporters and opponents of gay marriage packed the state Capitol for opposing rallies. Many opponents held pink and blue signs with messages such as “Biology is not bigotry.” A few hours earlier, supporters carried rainbow flags and homemade signs with messages such as “Love is Legal.”
Herbert has ordered state agencies to freeze recognition of same-sex marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court granted Utah an emergency stay after more than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples had married.
The governor also announced several efforts aimed at improving Utah’s mucky winter air, which has become an increasingly urgent public health issue. “It is a challenge we all share, and we all share in the responsibility to fix it,” Herbert said.
Two key areas of focus will be reducing vehicle emissions and wood burning, Herbert said.
The state also will work to ensure cleaner-burning gasoline and lower-emission vehicles are available in Utah, he said.
He also called on state air regulators to limit wood-burning during the season when pollution is worst.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, a Republican from Sandy, said he thought voluntary programs for bad days would be better than a season-long regulation.
“I think there needs to be some type of incentive approach,” he said. “For those that have wood burning stoves, that’s the only source of their heat.”
The issue is shaping up to be a big focus for Utah officials this year. More than 4,000 protesters called on officials to address the problem last weekend, and lawmakers are also working on more than a dozen air-quality bills this year.
The Salt Lake City metro area and other parts of northern Utah spent much of January under a health alert because of thermal inversions that trap tailpipe and other emissions in mountain valleys. It was some of the nation’s worst air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which tracks pollution.
State regulators adopted a series of comprehensive plans in early January that are supposed to clear the air by 2019.