Business people from around the state gathered on Friday, Jan. 18, to discuss their priorities for the upcoming 2019 legislative session.
Nearly 900 members of the Salt Lake Chamber met with a legislative panel comprising the senate president, house speaker and others from the Utah Economic Outlook and Public Policy Seminar to discuss statewide issues and give businesses an opportunity to participate in the solutions. The panel discussed a variety of topics ranging from water conservation to gas tax, prioritizing education, infrastructure and tax reform.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, addressed educational deficits across Utah and encouraged Utah’s business leaders to get involved with educational partnerships in private and public schools. According to Wilson, business leaders have as much power to make a difference as state legislators.
“At times we look at the Legislature to solve all these problems but the truth is as good as we are, there are sometimes better ways to fix these things,” Wilson said.
Minority Leader Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, is involved with the Utah Women in Trades organization and said she agrees with Wilson. Mayne said she feels encouraging women to get involved in technical trades will decrease poverty levels as women become more able to support their families. Mayne suggested starting in the high schools and asking students what they do well and what they are interested in doing for work.
“We need to nurture skills,” Mayne said. “That’s where you will find success.”
In the meeting, the panel discussed “a tale of two Utahs,” or the increasing economic disparity between the Wasatch Front and rural Utah. According to the legislative panel, a variety of issues like home affordability, water shortage and job openings inhibit the development of rural Utah.
Representative Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, spoke about the lack of job opportunities and the plethora of willing workers in Utah.
“As we talk to county commissioners throughout rural Utah, the one thing I hear the most is the only thing they’re good at exporting is their kids,” he said. “And let me tell you one thing, those kids know how to work.”
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said people flock to the Wasatch Front because of the job opportunities and quality of life it offers. He suggested with the increasing development of technology, remote jobs may allow for the development of residential property outside the Wasatch Front.
“Our future is bright because of what we’re seeing with technology,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface.”
Schultz recommended a smart growth strategy to help solve residential development problems.
“It goes back to the sales tax distribution where we have retail, jobs and housing,” he said. “It’s bringing these together into a community that will solve problems. Let’s get the jobs closer to the people where people have the opportunity to work, shop and live all in the same area.”
As Utah continues to grow, the need for transportation becomes more pressing. Even with the Utah Transit Authority overhaul in 2018, recent budget data suggests the Utah Department Of Transportation has struggled to fund adequate means of transportation for Utah citizens.
According to Abby Osborne, the vice president of Public Policy and Government Relations and the legislative panel moderator, Utah has invested over $600 million from sales tax into the transportation budget this year because gas tax has lost 49 percent of its buying power.
Adams said gas tax does not rise with inflation and the transportation budget is losing its ability to sustain itself. In addition, he mentioned the effect fuel-efficient and electric vehicles are having on the transportation budget. With fewer gallons needed to go farther, fuel-efficient vehicles are undermining the state’s ability to pay for road work. As borrowing from the sales tax budget is not sustainable, Adams said there needs to be change and said, “Quite frankly we’re not giving up.”
This may be cause for concern, as additional taxes may be necessary to make up for the transportation budget deficit. Wilson said the Legislature has two options.
“Are we going to have everyone who drives on the roads pay their fair share or are we going to have those who drive less subsidize those who drive more?” he asked.
During the 2018 legislative session, the Legislature passed a bill that allowed Utah to exact an additional annual registration fee on electric and hybrid vehicles that will increase until 2021 where it will remain at $120 per year. This fee, intended to accommodate for the lack of resources earned via the gas tax, could have adverse effects on Utah’s air quality if Utah residents are discouraged from buying electric cars.
Millner said the situation is complex.
“It is hard to talk about air quality and also talk about how we fund a really robust transportation system that’s going to support people without being willing to think about this in a much bigger picture,” she said.
While fuel-efficient vehicles may be contributing to the diminishing transportation budget, they play a key role in improving Utah air quality conditions. According to Osborne, air quality conditions have drastically improved over the past few years.
“Of 132 non-attainment areas in the United States, we had three. Cache Valley has dropped off, we heard from the governor’s office of energy that Utah County will drop off shortly and we are very close to the Salt Lake and Weber air shed dropping into attainment. That is remarkable that we have come so far,” Osborne said.
While current data suggests wood-burning stoves are largely responsible for air pollution in Utah, it is expensive to replace them with natural gas stoves. In 2018, the Utah government passed an initiative and funding to provide rebates to homeowners who chose to replace their wood-burning stoves, which has the potential to greatly improve air quality.
Adams suggested searching for other meaningful ways to improve air quality conditions with innovative ideas that make the most difference with the least amount of money.
“Perhaps those resources you use to make this small bit of difference with millions of dollars, we could repurpose those and with those millions of dollars make a big difference,” Adams said. “Maybe we need to rethink how we are using our resources.”
The last item on the panel’s agenda was the public water infrastructure. The consensus seemed to be that metering is the best option for reducing consumption.
“Secondary metering reduces consumption by thirty percent,” Schultz said. “We are going through the process to allow the cities to sell their excess water on the open market.”
Schultz clarified that cities need to take the money they earn by selling their water and reallocate it back into the infrastructure.
“We know that we are losing a certain percentage of our water just because we have an old infrastructure and old pipes,” Schultz said.
Adams said Utah’s only limiting factor is water and that conservation is the only way Utahns will have enough water in the future.
According to Derek Miller, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance, 2019 is all about growth and preparing for the future of Utah with responsible actions.
“As Utah’s business leader, is it critical that the Salt Lake Chamber provides a forum like this to focus on the key issues impacting our economy and what we as a business community can do to keep it moving,” Miller said.