“When we say conservative in Utah, we mean it!” a friend from the Beehive State once told me. “Out here, gun control means, ‘How straight is your aim?’”
He really wasn’t kidding. Utah has not elected a Democratic U.S. Senator since 1970, has not put a Democrat in the governorship since 1980, and competes with Idaho every four years to see which state delivers its electoral votes to the Republican presidential nominee by the largest margin in the nation.
So when there’s evidence that one elected Republican in Utah is more conservative than another, it’s newsworthy. That’s how I felt when interviewed Lieut. Gov. Gary Herbert, who will soon become Utah’s seventeenth governor when fellow Republican and two-term incumbent Jon Huntsman, Jr. is confirmed as President Obama’s ambassador to Beijing.
Emphasizing his close working relationship and personal friendship with ticket-mate Huntsman, Herbert nonetheless made it clear to me that “I disagree on a few areas with Gov. Huntsman. But we tolerate differences of opinion in the Republican Party out here.”
The 62-year-old Herbert specifically cited his difference with Huntsman on civil unions between gay couples, which Huntsman supported earlier this year. Herbert sees the issue differently. As he told me, “We have passed a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage and things akin to it. Now I do believe that people ought to be treated with respect regardless of sexual orientation. But all the benefits one gets from a civil union can already be achieved by seeing an attorney and drawing up documents.”
The incoming governor also noted that he supported Mitt Romney for president in ’08 when Huntsman was an early booster of John McCain, and, in his words, “I’m not as big on global warming as he is.” Herbert underscored his belief in “clean air and clean water and being good stewards of the earth.” But, he also emphasized, “I’m not inclined to develop policy based on unproven science. Let genuine science dictate our course and not ideology.”
Herbert parts company with fellow conservative governors such as Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Haley Barbour of Mississippi. He believes that, for Utah, “it is not a wise thing to do” to decline any of the federal dollars in the stimulus package.
“Most of that money that is earmarked for Utah [about $700 million] will go for construction of roads and education,” he explained, “We have had the largest percentage of growth in education of any state and we have the highest birthrate of any state.” He also said that his state has maintained its triple-A bond rating without raising taxes and still has money for its “Rainy Day” fund (about $514 million in the fund at this point).
“And we have cut the state income tax from 7% to 5% and cut some of the food taxes under the Huntsman-Herbert watch,” he noted proudly.
This year, Utah has found itself with a $1 billion shortfall in revenue. The incoming governor pointed out that the shortfall was conquered through acceptance of the stimulus money and issuance of bonds. There will also have to be a strong emphasis on repairing some of the roads in his state (including what he said is a stretch on one Utah road that is “one of the ten most dangerous in America”) and that congestion was a problem in parts of his state.
“But I have no desire to grow government,” Herbert told me, recalling how he spent 14 years as a county commissioner in Utah County (the state’s second largest county) and believed passionately in solving problems through local venues rather than enhancing the grasp of state government.