If you want some fun by yourself on a rainy afternoon, try speculating as to what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan would say if he were alive today.
Perhaps his most enduring quote is that a person may be entitled to his or her own opinions, “but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
That sounds like a quaint notion today, when politicians deny doing or saying things they were
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recorded doing and saying, or when national leaders distrust intelligence agencies or other institutions in deference to foreign interests.
Which is all the more reason why the Utah Foundation is so important. No, it doesn’t deal with world events, but it keeps Utah politicians and their proposed solutions honest. It is fact-based and shy about making recommendations — kind of a public policy version of television’s old Lt. Joe Friday, with his famous line, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Stephen Kroes, the longtime president of the foundation, told me Wednesday he is retiring, effective in July. He will return to Sacramento, from whence he came to Utah in 2001, and will begin his own consulting practice. He is doing this for a number of reasons, including family considerations.
One thing is certain. The foundation’s board of trustees must find someone just as capable to keep the 72-year-old institution a respected source for facts that drive political discussions on both sides of the aisle in Utah. The Utah Foundation is funded by a broad spectrum of individuals and organizations, including some on opposite sides of bitter issues.
Its reports give them all a common ground, which is not to be confused with agreement. A robust public debate isn’t really robust unless all sides build their positions on the same solid foundation.
When it comes to how facts are treated in America today, Kroes says, ““I’m tremendously worried about that, and it comes to a head with a review of last year’s presidential election and the idea that pretty much all facts that relate to politics are suspect now. And yet, I still see a lot attention being paid to our work, and Utah may be one of the places that is still best suited for a place like the Utah Foundation.”
Call it Utah exceptionalism, perhaps. But whatever you call it, please hang onto it.
Of course, 16 years of producing reports have left Kroes with opinions of his own. Now that he is leaving, he feels free to share these.
“One of my worries is that we still haven’t gotten used to the fact that we’re a state of 3 million people and a state with a $15 billion budget,” he said. “What I mean by that is we’re a little bit afraid of large numbers.”
This comes into play when dealing with a $5 billion public education budget state leaders seem content to increase by about $100 million per year. “Show me $250 million, and I’ll feel like some effort is being made toward an increase in capacity; something that might move the system forward in some way.”
The foundation’s research has cataloged how Utah’s education spending was hurt over the past 20 years by tax cuts and other legislative decisions.
Kroes also has concerns about air quality. Utah’s solutions, he said, have amounted to little more than “going along with EPA mandates.”
“I’d like to see a process where we’re bringing in experts, not just from other states but from other countries.”
It all comes down to thinking like a state of 3 million that is on the road to becoming a state of 5 million soon. “We had better get this right,” he said.
But it isn’t long before Kroes turns to the things he likes about Utah and reasons why he is optimistic. He will miss the natural beauties and the outdoor recreation only minutes from his front door.
He will miss the genuine niceness of people, which, he jokes, “only becomes a problem when you’re at a four-way stop in Utah County and nobody wants to go first.”
Also, he says he will miss the good intentions of public officials, including state lawmakers.
“That gives me hope that we will figure out how to be a state of 5 million people,” he said.
Good intentions and niceness — and a research group with the clout to keep us all grounded in facts.