A week ago Governor Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. and the Utah Legislature received updated economic projections and discovered they had $48 million more than earlier projections in one-time cash surpluses and $74 million more in ongoing monies. We learned that altogether, the state now has $398 million in new, ongoing revenues and $285 million in one-time surpluses for a record-setting total of $683 million.
A few hours later the Governor invited Senate President John Valentine and House Speaker Greg Curtis to his office. As Valentine and Curtis crossed the plaza which separates the West legislative annex building from the East executive building both men figured they knew what the Governor wanted. Based on past experience, this was to be the meeting when the Governor would put the pressure on legislative leaders to spend all of the new money, and to spend it his way.
Past governors by this stage of the legislative session had presented legislators with new lists of “hot spots” which simply had to be funded. This was the meeting where past governors had played hard-ball, saying the people and the media were on the side of greater spending, warning the speaker and president of the dire political consequences for the legislature if spending wasn’t increased.
As Valentine and Curtis walked, they promised each other they would stand firm against higher spending requests from the executive branch.
They passed through the building’s revolving door and began to climb the stairs to the Governor’s second floor office, each steeling himself for the expected budgetary confrontation. After shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, Governor Huntsman told the duo he’d like to discuss the budget. The Speaker and President looked at each other and smiled, smug about their ability to predict what the governor wanted.
Then Huntsman surprised them.
Governor Huntsman announced that he and his advisors had decided to give a haircut to some of his budget requests and then outlined the most essential components of his budget. He said he had decided to eliminate all of his “B” requests and all “C” requests and reduce the size of some of his “A” requests.
Hold on. Have we entered the twilight zone? The governor had just learned there was more, much more money to be spent and here he is proposing to pare his original spending list! Hadn’t he heard about the “hot spots” past governors brought forward for funding at this time?
But there’s more!
With the new revenue projections Huntsman said he decided to support the House proposal to prevent growing government by socking $85 million of general fund revenues away in the transportation fund. He also left $20 million on the table, unallocated, observing that the legislature should decide what to do with the money since legislative appropriations committees had spent long hours studying the various requests and hearing from the agencies and the public. Huntsman has also recommended putting $50 million off limits for growing government by placing it in the state Rainy Day Fund.
You could have knocked Curtis and Valentine over with a feather. They didn’t know what to do. They were prepared for a battle but the battle didn’t occur.
Huntsman exposed himself as a true fiscal conservative by cutting his own spending proposal and leaving money on the table.
There have been other pleasant surprises with this seven-week-old governor.
– He fired the non-productive Division of Business & Economic Development staff and brought a leaner staff directly into the Governor’s office, demonstrating his commitment to truly be the “Economic Development Governor.” I’ve re-read the economic development plan he published during his political campaign. Usually these things are more campaign rhetoric than substance, but in this case Huntsman is actually following his ten-point plan – and he’s making a difference.
– He has already met one-on-one with over fifteen CEO’s regarding expansion and relocation plans to Utah.
– He hosted several industry round tables to discuss targeted industries and branding.
– He hosted a group of sixteen of the country’s top site selectors that represent many Fortune 500 companies.
– He is pushing vigorously for a $10 million appropriation to “brand” Utah as a tourism destination.
– He’s forming a comprehensive regulatory task force with the intent to streamline Utah’s business regulations and eliminate unnecessary regulations.
– He has initiated discussion for major tax reform including the refinement and phasing out of the corporate income tax.
– He’s eliminated the position of full-time paid education deputy in his office and split the duties between two volunteers one of which is former congressional candidate and White House aide Tim Bridgewater who is a strong advocate for tuition tax credits and knows his way around the Washington education establishment. He continues to push vigorously for passage of tuition tax credit legislation to empower parents to exercise greater control over their children’s education.
– The Governor has decided to sell all of his stock in his family’s $9.5 billion family chemical firm and will be paying millions of dollars in state capital gains taxes. Surely tax advisors warned him of ways to avoid Utah taxes. Some other Utah millionaires have gone to extraordinary efforts to avoid paying Utah’s 7% tax on their capital gains.
I’m wondering if part of the reason Huntsman doesn’t have the typical “hot spot” lists of past governors is his firing of those in the Economic Development Office and his announced intent to look to further streamline government by restructuring the administration of state’s entire Information Technology system. Could it be the other agencies haven’t dared to make their appeals for funding hot spots out of concern their agencies may also come under greater scrutiny?
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
Many people have wondered why Governor Huntsman’s top staff dosn’t include the typical seasoned managers other governors have tapped. Some have thought he’s not smart bringing young newcomers on as his top advisors. Afterall, isn’t it best for a Governor with no prior government experience to have advisors who know their way around? One legislator told me this was a dumb decision.
I think he’s dumb like a fox. If he had the seasoned old-timers as advisors they’d be constantly telling him why he “can’t do it that way” and how “we already tried that before,” and “be careful with the media.” These fresh minds on his staff are not holding him back in achieving his bold plans for economic development, education, transportation, and environment.
I’ve never been more favorably impressed with the early track record of any new elected official. So far, he’s the best governor I’ve seen. A lot like Ronald Reagan.