Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 22)
This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Val Hale, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and Justin Harding, Governor Herbert’s chief of staff.
Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.
Val Hale (0:20): Curious to know what’s on the docket for the 2020 legislative session and if you wonder what it might be like to be governor of the great state of Utah? Today, we’re going to discuss what’s planned for this year’s legislative session and Gov. Herbert’s last year in office, and we’re going to get a glimpse into what it’s like to be the governor’s chief of staff. I’m Val Hale, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and with me today is Gov. Herbert’s chief of staff, Justin Harding. This is the Business Elevated podcast episode number 22. Welcome, Justin.
Justin Harding (0:55): Thanks, Val. It’s great to be here with you.
Val Hale (0:58): Justin is my boss and really, it’s an honor to have an opportunity to talk to you today. I was talking with my wife this week and we were talking about you, and I told her what a privilege it was to work with you and what a quality person you are. I sincerely mean that. One of the really fine people I’ve worked with in my career, and I’ve had a long career.
Justin Harding (1:23): It’s very kind of you to say, Val. Thank you. I’ll slip you the money later and in exchange. I’ll just ask for some more of Nancy’s chocolates.
Val Hale (1:30): There you go. That works. So when did you become Governor Herbert’s chief of staff?
Justin Harding (1:36): Good question. I was appointed as his chief of staff in June of 2014, and so five and a half years ago. Gov. Herbert is the longest-serving governor in our nation right now, in terms of current sitting governors. I have the distinction as being the longest-serving chief of staff at the present moment.
Val Hale (2:00): I thought that might be the case. What is the average tenure of a chief of staff? For those who don’t know what a chief of staff does, these are dog years. These are tough, tough jobs.
Justin Harding (2:13): Well, I thank you for that. Thankfully, I’m not growing fur like my [inaudible 00:02:19] is. But the National Governors Association, through their analysis, they determined the average tenure is about 19 months. If you do the math, I’m at 66, 67 months now, so by a factor of about three X three and a half, I’ve exceeded the maximum.
Val Hale (2:39): Well, it is extraordinary that you’ve been this long in this position because these are long hours. I might mention, Justin oversees the state pretty much. He reports to the governor, but he runs the state government for the state of Utah, which is how many employees, Justin?
Justin Harding (2:58): We’ve got about 24,000 employees. And of those folks, thankfully, they don’t all report directly to me. Of the ones that report directly to me, we’ve got about 28 staff within the executive office of the governor. There are 24 agency directors, executive directors and commissioners that report to me or through me to the governor, and they have deputy directors and division directors. But fortunately for us, we don’t have to meet with all of them all the time. It seems the issues that rise up to our level are usually the complicated personnel issues or appointment issues, personnel issues when it comes to retirements and resignations, terminations, we often get involved in those, particularly at the senior levels of government. For agency directors, those require Senate confirmation. Division directors, we like to sign off on those appointments as well and deputy directors in particular, just because the agency director is using the authority that’s been delegated to them by the governor as they make those appointments.
I’ve got a great team of people, and you’re among that group, so thank you, Val.
Val Hale (4:09): What type of things do you enjoy most about your job and what are the biggest challenges of your job?
Justin Harding (4:15): There are incredible opportunities here in state government. The governor has said to me not long ago that as the chief of staff, there’s nothing that happens within the state government that doesn’t bury your fingerprints in some way. Whether that be a personnel decision, a policy decision or directive, support or non-support for legislation, pretty much everything comes across the chief of staff’s desk and must be approved by him. In my case, I’m a man, but perhaps there’ll be female chiefs of staff in the future. That speaks to a lot of time and involvement. We’ve got a great team of people around us that help to support us in the wonderful decisions that we get to make on behalf of the people of the state of Utah. Not only do we get to work with the great people of the state, which is one of the most fulfilling elements of the job, and helping them interface with the government.
Many people don’t know what it’s like, or how to interface with their government. If they’re dealing with a benefits question or a regulatory issue or a legal issue and oftentimes, we get to be the people that help, be the translators, the moderators, the mediators to help them interface with their government. And those are, in my view, probably the most fulfilling elements of the job is helping people to understand that government. As a general rule, the government is not their enemy, it is there to help them to succeed in their lives.
Val Hale (5:54): And the challenges?
Justin Harding (5:56): The challenges, I suppose there are, depending upon how you look at it, there could be. You could spend your time worrying about the challenges or you could spend your time thinking about more positive things, and ways to meet the needs of the people and address their concerns. Probably the biggest challenge for us is time and resource management. The governor is the greatest resource we have, but there’s only one of him. Consequently, we have to tell more people than we would like, no, unfortunately, the governor is unable to attend your ribbon cutting or your son’s Eagle Court of Honor or your child’s school play, or whatever the case might be. Those are real challenges, particularly because this governor cares deeply about the people that he serves. He’s often the first person to enter a room and he’s most often the last person to leave.
I can think of a number of events that I’ve been to with him where the cleaning staff is literally putting up the tables away, the AV staff are coiling up the cables and you’ve got people trying to move us out of the way because they’re coming through with heavy equipment. Gov. Herbert is still there with a line of people talking to every person that wants to talk to him and posing for a photo with every person that wants a photo with him. What that does is that has a compounding effect upon his schedule because we might be running behind by 30 or 45 minutes, or even an hour, because the governor wants to be accessible to the people of the state of Utah.
Val Hale (7:42): I’ve seen that happen time and again, he literally is the last person out the door, and he enjoys it.
Justin Harding (7:48): He does.
Val Hale (7:48): That’s the fun thing. He thoroughly enjoys being with the people.
Justin Harding (7:53): He does.
Val Hale (7:54): That’s what makes him who he is.
Justin Harding (7:56): It drives him, and it’s wonderful. I hope that our future leaders of our state have the same openness and accessibility that Gov. Herbert has.
Val Hale (8:08): I agree. Let’s shift a little bit now and talk about the upcoming legislative session. What can we expect, do you think, in this session? What are you going to be the key topics or themes? There’s always, it seems that a theme or two emerge, we’ve just gone through the tax reform special session, but that’s not totally dead yet with the referendum.
Justin Harding (8:32): Sure.
Val Hale (8:32): What do you see coming forward this session that will be the highlights or at least the key topics?
Justin Harding (8:39): Great question. What I see as far as the key issues coming up in the 2020 general legislative session, number one would be Gov. Herbert’s first priority, and that is education funding. He has proposed a record $292 million increase in public education funding, that’s K-12. That translates to a 4.5% increase in the weighted pupil unit. That’s an incredible investment on the part of the state of Utah in public education. In the last four years, we’ve invested $1 billion in public education and in the last decade, we’ve invested nearly $3 billion. It’s a significant investment on the part of the state of Utah. In speaking with Gov. Herbert, in reviewing his budget priorities, in our communications with the legislature, that becomes his number one priority is education funding.
We want our students in the state to have the very best education that they can, and we want our teachers in the classroom and the administrators to feel they have the best resources to equip the workforce of tomorrow. Other priorities would be air quality continues to be a concern. Our unique topography and geography will not change. We’ll always have inversions, and that’s just because we live in a giant basin or bowl here in the Salt Lake Valley. We can lessen the impacts of those inversions by having cleaner burning automobiles, more electric cars, better electric infrastructure, cleaner burning school buses and cleaner burning transit systems. We’ve proposed $100 million to be invested in clean air efforts. A lot of those will be off the Wasatch Front as we seek to improve our electric vehicle infrastructure.
What we’re seeing is that it’s difficult for people to buy an electric car along the Wasatch Front, knowing that there are range limitations. Not only are there range limitations, but there’s limitations around the infrastructure to have certainty of being able to recharge that vehicle as they travel around the state. As we invest in electric vehicle infrastructure off the Wasatch Front, then we hope will increase the number of people who will convert their gasoline burning vehicles to electric vehicles, and that those improvements in the fleet will definitely help improve air quality here along the Wasatch Front.
Val Hale (11:03): I noticed he also made a comment recently, I can’t remember if it was in his budget or just talk about double-tracking FrontRunner, which could have a significant impact on our transportation and clean air. There are certain challenges with FrontRunner. As a regular rider of FrontRunner, I can attest to that.
Justin Harding (11:25): There was a recent article I believe that one of the local papers wrote and they talked about how FrontRunner. The way the tracking is now, a FrontRunner train can only pass through an area about every 30 minutes. If you’re a businessperson or a commuter or somebody who’s trying to get from point A to point B and you missed the previous train by two minutes, and it’s another 28 minutes before the next train comes, that has down-ballot consequences for you as part of your commute. Gov. Herbert is proposing double-tracking FrontRunner along a set, a segment of the track that would enable trains to come through every 15 minutes. As we travel abroad, we try to look and see what best practices there are in other countries. We spent some time in Switzerland this past summer of 2019, as well as in France and those are European countries, that have a very robust public transit system and great access to rail across the country.
We may not ever have a monorail type train between Salt Lake City and St. George, the population may not support that, but if we can have better options for those along our populated urban corridors along the Wasatch Front, then we believe that’ll help get people out of their cars and into transit. That will also help clear the air.
Val Hale (12:47): I hope that happens.
Justin Harding (12:48): We do too.
Val Hale (12:50): Because I’m one of those who’s missed the train by a minute, and then stood up in 15-degree weather for 28 minutes waiting for the next one to show up. And that’s never fun.
Justin Harding (13:00): Not pleasant.
Val Hale (13:02): Let’s talk for a minute. You mentioned the governor’s priority is always education, and he certainly has done some amazing things there, but 1B on his priority list has been the economy and economic development. I think when you look back at Gov. Herbert’s legacy, I mean, he’s presided over the greatest economic expansion and prosperity in the history of the state. Talk to us for a minute about his vision for economic development and how you’ve seen him carry out that priority and push it forward, and maybe some of the successes that you think he’ll be remembered for.
Justin Harding (13:38): No, I appreciate that, Val. The governor has often said to use his words since the great recession of a decade ago, we have focused laser-like on the economy. The purpose of that laser-like focus was to make Utah the best-performing economy in the nation. If you look at the metrics, the data speaks for itself. We have among the lowest unemployment rates of any state in the nation. We have the most diverse economy of any state in the nation. Year over year, we experienced the greatest private sector job growth. I suppose the question that we should want to answer is why is this important?
Utah historically has had a very young and robust population. Unfortunately, for many years, we’ve exported a lot of that population out of Utah to go to other job centers in the country. We want to keep that talent here. There is a benefit that comes to the state when we can create jobs that keep the individuals here. They’ll live and work and raise families and contribute to their communities in meaningful ways. When it comes to just the overall success of the economy, the things that are important to us as Utahns, a strong and healthy public education system, a strong and healthy higher education system, good social safety net programs that address concerns around addiction and homelessness and things like that. You can’t address those things if you don’t have a successful economy.
Because we’ve had a successful economy, that has returned to the state billions of dollars annually in revenue. We balance our budgets, we live within our means, we run an efficient state government, but that also enables us to invest in many of these critical services. A populace that is overtaxed and overworked doesn’t really want to be productive. In Utah, because of our low rates of taxation, we have a very robust, hardworking population that contributes greatly to our economy. It enables us to really have not only the most diverse economy in the state, but also a state that meets the needs of the least among us, and one of the most dynamic and incredible ways that I’ve seen anywhere that I’ve been.
Val Hale (16:10): It really has been remarkable to see the governor’s laser-like focus and his commitment. When I introduce the governor sometimes, I had mentioned that if you really want to know a person’s true priorities, you look at their calendar and that’s where you see where they really are prioritizing their time. I guess you could add the budget to that as well. Where are they putting the budget, and look at their calendar. I’ve been very impressed with the amount of time that the governor has given to economic development. As you know, we travel around the world literally, and talk to me about Gov. Herbert’s ability to talk about Utah our economy. I mean, he refers to himself as the chief bragging officer.
Justin Harding (16:58): CBO of the state. I’ve traveled around the world with him. I’ve traveled around the country. I’ve met with governors, presidents, kings, and even the Pope. And every one of those settings, the governor always speaks with tremendous fluency about what I will call the exceptionalism of Utah. I’m going to channel my inner Gov. Gary Herbert here just a little bit. Recently, he was in the news where he became emotional in a segment where he was sharing a story about a family that moved here from California. They questioned whether or not Utah was the right place for them to be and ultimately determined that no amounts of loving nor money could draw them back to their former home. The governor shared that story in making the broader point. Going back to an anchor, an anchor point in history where Brigham Young, when he came into the valley with the early Mormon pioneers in the summer of 1847, declared that this is the right place. Drive on. Meaning, head into the Valley and let’s start a settlement. Let’s start a civilization.
And Gov. Herbert, as the 17th governor, sees that vision that Brigham Young had in the summer of 1847 as literally having come to pass. There is not a nation that we go to, there is not a state that we go to, that is not aware of Utah. Our unique culture, our business climate, our incredible workforce, our spirit of can do and hard work, the dynamic families, the incredible vistas and outdoor recreational opportunities we have. Gov. Herbert shares the same message no matter who he’s talking to, that Utah is the right place for them to be.
Val Hale (18:54): Well, he’s done a remarkable job in that and we’ve all been the beneficiaries. Let’s get personal here for a minute and talk about Gov. Herbert as a person. What qualities of his do you admire most and what things about him have you really enjoyed during your time?
Justin Harding (19:13): That’s a good question. There’s a lot that I admire about Gov.Herbert. I’ve had the privilege now of working for four different elected officials over the course of my nearly 20 years in public service. They’re all incredible people, people with singular attributes and incredible professional histories and great families. What I think sets Gov. Herbert apart is at his core, he is a humane, compassionate, sincere individual and he’s motivated simply and purely to do the right thing for the right reasons, and for no other reason at all. If a situation or a scenario was presented to him that has political implications and he’s encouraged to make a decision because of political correctness or expediency or whatever else, he always asked the question of what is the right policy for the people of Utah?
There are times when that has put him at odds with elected leadership here in our state, elected leadership in our nation, even when it comes to the president of the United States on certain policies around refugees and things like that. The governor has always taken it a compassionate, humane approach. I think that the things that Gov. Gary Herbert will hopefully be best remembered for is he views himself as the governor of all of the people of Utah.
Val Hale (20:40): Well, he’s on his homestretch.
Justin Harding (20:42): Yes, he is.
Val Hale (20:43): After all these years, this is going to be it. What do you think will be his legacy when he walks away? What will people remember him for 20 years from now?
Justin Harding (20:53): Good question. When it comes to his legacy, he quibbles with us when we talk about his legacy because he does not feel strongly about that particular element. Being governor, I think, is the coolest and the neatest thing that he never thought he would do. When he set out on a course 30 years ago as a county commissioner, I don’t believe he ever thought that would lead him to the state capitol where he would become the chief executive officer of the state. And because of that, he’s not a climber in the sense that he’s looking for the next opportunity. When it comes to his legacy, I hope that the people of Utah will remember him for being a good person who cared deeply about the state.
I don’t think his legacy is not something that he frets over. It’s not something that he worries about. It’s not something that he expresses to me or to any of the other members of the senior team in terms of, well, what’s my legacy going to be? How are people going to remember me? That’s just not his focus. He’s told us that he’s going to sprint to the finish. He’s going to work until the very last day that he has in Utah. There’s a phrase of wasting and wearing out one’s life for a worthy cause, and I think that, that’s certainly the approach that Gary Herbert will take.
Val Hale (22:14): Well, thank you, Chief Harding, for joining us and letting us get a look at your interesting job. I think very few people have an understanding of what it takes to be a chief of staff. You do it very well.
Justin Harding (22:27): Well, thank you, Val.
Val Hale (22:28): We really have enjoyed having you here in our Business Elevated podcast. We look forward to this final year with the governor, and we’ll look for you for great leadership here in the state. Thank you very much.
Justin Harding (22:40): Thank you. Let’s make it a great year.
Val Hale (22:42): Amen.
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