SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert used his eighth annual state of the state address Wednesday to sound a hopeful note on President Donald Trump’s administration and endorse a proposal repealing a longtime state requirement that some Utah restaurants prepare and mix alcoholic drinks behind a barrier at least 7 feet tall.
Herbert, a Republican who didn’t vote for Trump, said in his evening speech to state lawmakers that he attended the GOP president’s inauguration last week and he’s hopeful Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress will make major changes that give the state greater control over its education, transportation, health care and public lands.
The governor never mentioned Trump by name, but he did crack a joke about the resignation of a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir who objected to the group’s performing at Trump’s ceremony. Herbert said Wednesday that “in spite of the choir’s decision to sing at my inauguration, not one choir member has resigned.”
Highlights from the governor’s speech:
In the past, Herbert has said he believes Utah’s liquor laws work and are not overly burdensome and even said those pushing to get rid of the alcohol mixing barriers should “give it a rest.” But on Wednesday, he said he supports the work of two lawmakers who want to repeal the barriers, known as “Zion Curtains,” in exchange for increasing the state markup on alcohol and tightening up other liquor laws. The nickname is a reference to the Mormon church, which instructs members to abstain from drinking alcohol and is heavily involved in state liquor policy debates. Herbert, a member of the church, said Wednesday that he thinks bars can be distinct from restaurants without stigmatizing responsible adults drinking alcohol.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said it’s important that restaurants look very distinct from bars and he’s not yet assured they’ll still feel different if the barriers are removed. “I’m not sure what that looks like yet. We have a long ways to go with that,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Gene Davis of Salt Lake City, who has been in the Legislature for 30 years, said, “This is the first time I’ve heard a State of the State message that even raised the issue of alcohol.” He said he welcomes the repeal.
The governor called on lawmakers to ensure that online retailers are collecting sales tax from Utah residents buying goods online. Utah loses about $150 million to $200 million in revenue annually from unreported and uncollected internet sales, Herbert said. Herbert also called on lawmakers to review all of Utah’s tax exemptions and tax credits to see whether they still make sense. He said that over the past 20 years, tax exemptions have nearly doubled and tax credits have more than tripled — creating more pressure to raise existing taxes to keep paying for government services.
Niederhauser said most of the state’s tax exemptions help ensure businesses whose products are already taxed don’t face a tax on their inputs, such as raw materials. He added it’s worth exploring whether the state can get more revenue from restoring a sales tax on food and collecting the online sales tax.
Though lawmakers this session are discussing and mostly rejecting a proposal by business leaders to raise Utah’s income tax by 7/8ths of a percent to give schools hundreds of millions in more money. Herbert didn’t directly mention the issue Wednesday. He instead said Utah needs to invest more money into education but that he’s concerned about altering tax policies that could hurt Utah’s economy. The governor announced he’s creating a project called Talent Ready Utah where businesses and schools would “partner with and invest in local education,” with the ambitious goal of filling 40,000 new “high-skill, high-paying jobs” over the next four years.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said the proposal to raise the income tax is needed to raise enough money, and the Legislature should pass it. If lawmakers don’t, Briscoe said it may come down to a proposed ballot initiative.
The governor said that while Utah’s economy as a whole is strong, rural areas are still struggling. Herbert announced he’s setting a goal of creating 25,000 new jobs in 25 counties not along Utah’s Wasatch Front, where most of the state’s population is based. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state Rural Partnership Board and others will work on the effort, Herbert said. He did not lay out further details for the plan.
Niederhauser said he thinks the job goals are within reach and it’s a good goal, but he thinks quite a few of those jobs might be filled anyway without programs because of the strong economy.
Herbert said he’s concerned about Utah’s air quality, which can spike to unhealthy levels in the winter as cold air traps pollutants in the state’s bowl-shaped valleys. The governor said Utah will soon get $35 million as part of a settlement states reached with Volkswagen over an emissions scandal and the state will look at using the funds to replace polluting diesel engines, among other efforts.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, said the Volkswagen settlement limits how the state can spend the money, but replacing diesel engines is one use. She said there’s lots more the state needs to do to improve air quality, including replacing about 1/3 of air quality monitors, which are outdated.