It was my good fortune to be on the road to San Juan County on the Friday that Utah’s National Parks re-opened, following a marathon negotiation between Governor Herbert and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
I drove past a line of cars waiting for the gates to open at Arches, through Moab where happy faces filled the streets, and on to Natural Bridges where the visitors and rangers expressed heartfelt gratitude. The scene was repeated across the state from Springdale to Bicknell, Ruby’s Inn to Hite. For me, this experience will go down as a red-letter day in the Governor’s Office, not just for getting our parks re-opened, but for the opportunity to have a front row seat in observing how government can and SHOULD work.
The first take-away is the importance of personal relationships. Taking the time to develop personal relationships has the inherent benefit of making it easier to work with people to solve problems and making it more difficult to engage in senseless partisan name-calling. The fact that Governor Herbert made concerted efforts to build a strong working relationship with Secretary Jewell upon her confirmation contributed immensely to opening the parks. The Governor has her cell number and he knew she would answer when he called. The Governor’s message to Secretary Jewell was simple: “There are many people who will tell us that opening the parks can’t be done, but you and I can find a way to make it happen.”
The second take-away is the need for hard work. In the days leading up to the shutdown, the staff in the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget worked closely with the staff in the Legislative Fiscal Analysts Office to analyze the potential impacts. In turn, Senate President Niederhauser, House Speaker Lockhart and Governor Herbert made contingency plans for how to manage the ship of state in the turbulent waters created by the federal shutdown. House Majority Leader Brad Dee and Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams were particularly helpful in working through the details of the agreement to open the National Parks. At a time when our nation suffers at the hands of “constitutional scholar” politicians who lack real world experience, the State of Utah benefits from being led by pragmatic problem-solvers.
The final and most important take-away is that putting people above politics leads to good outcomes. As someone who spends many hours each day with Governor Herbert, I often hear him ask, “What’s the right thing to do for the people of Utah”. And I don’t mean he says it as a sound-bite to a reporter or in official meetings. He asks the question when it’s just the two of us, discussing important and complex issues. Of course, it’s easy for any politician to say he or she will put people above politics, but the proof is in the pudding.
Now that the shutdown is over, we are subject to mind-numbing analysis as pundits argue whether the shutdown was done in pursuit of a principled and just cause or whether it hurt the long-term effort to bring spending under control, reign in entitlements, and repeal and replace ObamaCare. All this chatter of course belies what’s important – that real people were hurt in real ways. The finger pointing between the White House and Congress underscores the sad point that there are too many political games and the public continues to be collateral damage.
The real story (and tragedy) isn’t in fiscal numbers or vague economic vocabulary terms, it needs to be understood in the stories of individuals and families. It’s true that closing the National Parks in Utah alone cost the state’s tourism industry $30 million, but the important point is driven home when we consider the families of the employees at Ruby’s Inn who were at risk of losing their jobs. “Furloughed federal workers” is a phrase that may not mean much until we realize this could be our friend who serves one weekend per month with the Utah National Guard and now can’t make his car payment. Hearing about the lack of funding for the WIC program may not pull at our heart-strings until we remember that WIC stands for Women Infants and Children and we think of our neighbor who is a single mother who needs help getting baby formula.
The list could go on and on. And while it’s true that the antics in DC hurt the economy and weakened our country's international standing, that damage is really nothing compared to the harm to real people. Benjamin Franklin famously said “experience keeps a dear school but a fool will learn in no other.” With the next fiscal crisis looming on the horizon, let’s hope we’re not forced to retake the course.