Blog Post

6/13/13: Don't rely on Utah's 'best run state' accolades

By: Natalie Gochnour

Originally published in the Deseret News

We are fortunate in Utah to have had great governors through the years. I’ve had the pleasure of working directly with three of them — Norm Bangerter, Mike Leavitt and Olene Walker — and advising two of them — Jon Huntsman Jr., and Gary Herbert. I grew up admiring the service of Govs. Cal Rampton and Scott Matheson. To a person, Utah’s governors protect the public trust and serve as remarkable stewards of our state.

This stands in sharp contrast to a major state like Illinois where four of the past seven governors have served prison time. Leadership matters, and Utah is well led.

I worry in recent years, governors, legislators and other elected officials rely too much upon the claim that Utah is the “best-managed” or “best-run” state. They proclaim it in congressional testimony, veto letters, floor debates, political mailers, campaign ads and news stories. It’s used in economic development ads, highlighted in speeches and glorified in public decision making. It’s repeated so frequently we start to believe we really are incredible, like a performer who only hears accolades from his or her traveling posse. We start to think we are better than we are.

Like any claim, there’s a story behind it, and the best-managed rankings have a long history in this state. Here’s what you need to know.

Utah is not the best managed state; it is among the best-managed states. The entities doing the rankings have changed over time, moving from Financial World magazine in the 1990s, to the Pew Center on the States and Governing magazine in the 2000s, to 24/7 Wall Street (a financial news column) in the most recent tabulations. Utah ranked No. 4 in 2012, No. 6 in 2010, landed a three-way tie for No. 1 in 2008 and a two-way tie for No. 1 in 2005. Saying we are the best-managed state is convenient; it’s also out-of-date and misleading.

Every Utah governor in modern history gets to make the claim. The rankings stem from Utah’s long history of fiscal restraint, not from any particular personality on Capitol Hill. Under Gov. Bangerter’s watch, Utah achieved a No. 2 ranking for best-managed state in 1990, a No. 1 ranking in 1991 and a No. 2 ranking again in 1992. Utah was among the best-managed states under Gov. Leavitt’s leadership six times. Rating entities like Utah because we have a constitutional balanced-budget requirement and bond limitation, a line-item veto, an appropriation limitation and a triple A bond rating. A former Utah budget official I spoke with said it well, “Utah is small enough to control what happens and large enough to be sophisticated.”

Best-managed state doesn’t mean best led. Management is critically important, but it’s not leadership. Management is a set of processes that keep complicated systems running smoothly. It’s planning, budgeting, staffing and measuring performance. Thanks to great public employees we excel at these in Utah. Leadership is different. Leadership is about defining what the future should look like and then insp