An Interview with Utah Governor Gary Herbert

Gary Herbert(Editor’s note: This originally appeared in our sister publication Idaho Politics Weekly.)

“Utah moves back to the top spot where it ranked for three straight years from 2010 through 2012. The state has a very pro-business climate and companies benefit from energy costs that are 26% below the national average and third lowest in the U.S. Utah’s economy has expanded 2.4% a year over the past five years—fifth best in the U.S.”

                  — Forbes Magazine 2014 “Best States for Business”

According to the Forbes Magazine’s 2014 list of “Best States for Business”, Idaho ranks 28th in the United States.  The number one slot is held by our neighbor to the south – Utah. 

The governor of Utah is Gary Herbert.  He was Utah’s lieutenant governor in 2009 when then-Gov. Jon Huntsman accepted the post of U.S. Ambassador to China.  Herbert ascended to the post and then won election in 2010 and again in 2012.  He has already announced he is running for a third term in 2016.

Herbert today is the Chair of the National Governors Association for 2015-2016.  NGA is the national organization of state chief executives.

Last week, I had a few minutes to interview Governor Herbert on Utah’s economic success.  And, I learned a bit about his deep family ties to Southeast Idaho. 

Herbert’s father was raised in Sterling, a small Idaho unincorporated area located between Blackfoot and Aberdeen.  Herbert has vivid memories of visiting relatives in Sterling as a kid. The family farm is still in the family.

He was raised in Orem, Utah, but his father remembered his Idaho roots.  The family always had a big garden with lots of spuds.  That large garden required a lot of labor and Gary Herbert and his siblings were the source.

The Governor believes that Utah’s present economic success is tied closely to what his father taught him in that garden, namely how to work hard.  His family’s motto growing up was:  “Work Will Win When Wishy Washy Wishing Won’t.”

Herbert told me that when the recession hit Utah, his approach was not simply to sit and wish that things would get better.  Instead, he applied his family’s motto, rolled up his sleeves and went to work, as did the businesses and people of Utah.  He asserts that Utah’s prosperity today is grounded in that hard work.

Herbert also believes that his time in his family’s garden instilled another important life lesson, the importance of quality of the soil in order to get a bountiful crop. 

“The most important trick to growing a good garden is having a fertile soil.  Even if you have marginal seed, they’ll germinate.  That is a good metaphor for the business environment in Utah.  We’ve got good, fertile soil for businesses,” stated Herbert.

He points to Utah’s competitive tax rates, extensive regulatory reform and a generally business-friendly environment which makes it easy for businesses to start and expand if profitable.  He boasts:  “We want to give people a chance to compete in the market, to succeed.”

He is proud of Utah’s economic successes:  A rapidly growing economy, low unemployment rates, and the ability to attract significant out-of-state businesses.  He points to the fact that Forbes Magazine has named Utah the state with the best business environment in the country for three of the last four years.

He also expressed pride that Utah has the smallest differential in the U.S. between the upper and lower classes – the smallest income gap.  The key is that Utah has a broad and prosperous middle class and the fact that the economic ladder works, given opportunity to those willing to work hard.  Herbert believes that reality reflects well on the people of Utah.

I asked him how Idaho, Utah and the other Rocky Mountain states can work effectively together on regional matters.

He pointed out that Western states have much in common in contrast to states on both coasts.  He noted that governors of surrounding states are united on a range of issues that cross partisan lines. “There are common issues that bring us together” such as natural resources concerns, public lands, water, energy development, wild burros, the Endangered Species Act, wild horses, etc.  That common interest across party lines creates the ability to present a united front on key issues.

And, there is a need for Western states to stand together.  Herbert believes that many Eastern policymakers don’t understand the unique needs of the West.

He related visiting with the president and White House staff concerning the PILT program (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) which provides federal funds for states with considerable public lands to offset the inability to collect property taxes on those lands.  His sense was that it was a difficult issue to understand for those who’ve lived in states that have almost all land in private ownership, unlike a state like Idaho where 62% of the land is under federal control or Utah where the number is even higher.

“Western states need to be understood, not misunderstood.  We can do so together.”

Herbert is also a big advocate for the role of the states in our federal system.  As NGA chair, his key initiative is entitled: “States: Finding Solutions, Improving Lives”.  The basic idea of this program is for NGA to showcase best practices by individual states and their role as “laboratories of democracy”.  The goal is get good ideas the recognition necessary to spread the best ones broadly.

If successful in his run for re-election in 2016, Herbert will join a couple of other three-term Utah governors: Democrat Cal Rampton and Republican Mike Leavitt.

Steve Taggart is an Idaho Falls attorney specializing in bankruptcy (  He has an extensive background in politics and public policy.  He can be reached at [email protected].