- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 29, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Gov. Gary Herbert is once again making education, the economy and air quality top priorities for the coming year.

The Republican detailed his 2014 priorities for Utah on Wednesday evening in his fifth annual State of the State address to the Legislature.

Education was at the top of Herbert’s list last year and the focus of his budget proposal released in December.

In his 30-minute speech, he called on lawmakers to set aside $4.5 million for science, math and technology programs in schools. He also proposed spending $62 million in teacher raises and another $2 million to bolster job counseling for high school students.

“Today’s students have access to a world of information at their fingertips,” he said. “We need to ensure they also have access to the information that will put them on the path to success.”

Herbert said Utah’s economy is doing well and noted the state’s 4.1 percent unemployment rate, the lowest it has been since late 2008.

But the governor said the state still needs to expand its economy. State government will reach out to businesses to help increase Utah’s exports by $9 billion by the end of 2015, he said.

Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, praised the governor for naming education as a top priority but called for more spending on schools to bring the state closer to pre-recession levels.

Seelig, the Democratic leader in the House, said Utah also needs to consider raising its $7.25 minimum wage when looking at economic issues.

“We need to make opportunities for everyone willing to work,” she said. “Not just a small, select few.”

Herbert shied away from using Wednesday night’s speech to announce a plan on expanding Medicaid, a looming decision for the state. Under the federal health care law, states have the option of expanding eligibility for Medicaid, the state-federal program for low-income people. If states expand the program, the federal government has offered to pick up the full cost of Medicaid expansion through 2016 and 90 percent after that.

Herbert, a Republican, has said he has made a decision but has postponed announcing his plan. Republican officials in Utah have been reluctant to take up the offer to fully expand the program. They have cited concerns about the sticker price and whether federal budget strains may cause Washington not to hold up its end of the agreement.

Herbert said Wednesday that he looks forward to working with lawmakers to find a solution that supports private markets, maximizes flexibility and is in the best interest of taxpayers. “Assisting the poor in our state is a moral obligation that must be addressed,” he said.

Herbert also touched on same-sex marriage, an issue that has dominated Utah politics since a federal judge threw out the state’s gay marriage ban in December.

The governor said he’s committed to defending the ban but urged that the issue be handled with civility and respect.

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