Article

Measured Progress

It Was a Quiet, but Pro-Business, 2013 Legislative Session

By LaVarr Webb | Photography by Steve Greenwood

April 8, 2013

In that regard, legislators made modest progress. In a full-page newspaper advertisement thanking legislators for their work, the Salt Lake Chamber said the Legislature invested in Utah’s future workforce in these ways:

  • Adopted the goals to have 90 percent of Utah’s elementary students proficient in reading, and 66 percent of Utah adults with a college degree or skilled trade certificate by 2020.
  • Created and funded the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Action Center, a nexus for innovation in education.
  • Strengthened higher education with an $18 million allocation to mission-based funding, much of which will be directed toward STEM pursuits.
  • Secured college assessment preparation and testing for all high school students.

Much of the state’s increased revenue for the coming fiscal year was used to fund student growth in public education and to provide a small increase in teacher compensation packages. 

However, education interests did not receive the large funding increases they wanted, and no real structural reforms were passed. Education funding will continue to be a big issue, and some education supporters are considering asking the 2014 Legislature to put an education tax increase on the 2014 election ballot, allowing voters to decide if they want to increase education funding substantially.

Legislators are almost always leery of increasing taxes. In past decades, Utah’s overall tax burden has been relatively high compared to other states, due mostly to large family sizes and education costs of the highest number of school children percentage-wise, in the nation. In recent years, however, even with high numbers of children to educate, Utah’s overall tax burden declined to 29th in the nation by 2010, according to the Tax Foundation, and today the burden is probably lower. The Legislature has cut taxes many times over the last decade, with virtually no tax increases.

In its newspaper advertisement, the Salt Lake Chamber also noted that lawmakers addressed a forthcoming doctor shortage by increasing the number of admitted seats to the University of Utah medical school from 82 to 122, and also increased funding to the Utah Science Technology & Research (USTAR) initiative.

Taking a Pass

Legislators declined to support a new Salt Palace-connected convention hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. Convention and tourism officials like Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, say the hotel is needed if Utah is to remain competitive with peer states chasing convention and tourism business. Utah is losing conventions for lack of a 1,000-room convention hotel, and the summer and winter Outdoor Retailers shows could also be in jeopardy.

State money would not have been used for the hotel itself, but for parking facilities and other infrastructure that would be used by all Salt Palace visitors. Supporters of the big hotel say the issue isn’t dead, and the facility will eventually be built.

Healthcare reform was another much-discussed topic at the Legislature, but because of ongoing negotiations between the state and federal government regarding Medicaid expansion and the state health insurance exchange, no definitive legislation met final approval. A bill forbidding Gov. Gary Herbert from expanding Medicaid failed to get traction. Those issues will be addressed over the next several months by Herbert and legislative interim committees.

No one ever gets everything they desire out of the Legislature, not even legislators themselves. But overall, business leaders say it was a positive, productive session.

As the session was concluding, Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Lane Beattie told Forbes magazine, “We have something very special going on in our state. Our business community is organized, united and ready to work with our elected officials. And we have a very pro-business governor and Legislature. That combination is rare, and it is the primary reason our economy is performing as well as it has.”  

 

 

 

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