Utah Prepares to Transform Population Challenges Into Opportunities

by WTC Utah President and CEO Derek Miller

Over the years, I’ve learned that you can start some amazing conversations with the phrase, “Here’s a question for you…” I used that phrase recently to start a conversation with Kristen Cox, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

It’s safe to say her office is the confluence for all state budget requests, revenue projections, operational improvements – everything having to do with how we manage taxpayer money – and she has some amazing perspective regarding the challenges to our prosperity.

As a leader with her hands in nearly every aspect of the financial side of state government, I asked Kristen the following question: “In thinking about Utah’s prosperity, what is one of the biggest challenges we face?”

Without hesitation she said, “Population growth.” Then she continued, “It’s actually one of our biggest challenges, and opportunities. How do we prosper economically while adjusting to our unprecedented population growth and maintain our quality of life?”

Since Kristen leads Gov. Gary Herbert’s “Utah Life Elevated 2020” effort, she was well prepared to continue the conversation. As she explained, Utah Life Elevated 2020 is a collaborative, statewide growth strategy to guide policy decisions that will enhance the prosperity and quality of life for all Utahns. It considers how to spend new state revenue while also maximizing existing resources.

“We’ve been thinking about the challenges that come with population growth for quite a while,” she continued. “Take transportation, for example. There are only so many roads you can build, especially in a landlocked area like the Wasatch Front. Nonetheless, our population is used to a certain lifestyle. We want to maintain the ability to get to work without being in traffic for hours and hours, while also improving our air quality and protecting open space. To do that we will have to think differently about how we build and grow.”

Kristen went on to explain that the Utah Life Elevated 2020 growth strategy focuses on four areas:

  1. Effective and efficient government
  2. Affordable, thriving communities
  3. Qualified workforce
  4. Equitable and competitive tax revenue

Within the four general areas are a variety of unique challenges. For example, Kristen pointed out that how we use and pay for water must be addressed as part of the infrastructure conversation. Utahns have long enjoyed inexpensive water resources, but our water isn’t unlimited. Looking ahead, to pay for and sustain our resource the state needs to move to a user fee model based upon water use.

“We are not as heavy in user fees as we should be,” she explained. “If you use it you should pay for it, which also helps people think about what they are using and be more cautious.”

Equitable taxes are another challenge. Kristen told me that for Utah to maintain its competitive edge economically, we must have competitive tax revenue to pay for the necessary infrastructure. However, the state’s tax base has shrunk because of a shift from a goods-based economy to a service-based economy. In the 80s, she explained, about 70 percent of the tax revenue came from sales taxes. Today, only about 46 percent of state revenues come from sales taxes. Hence, the focus of the Utah Life Elevated 2020 strategy is to broaden the tax base while lowering the rate, so that everyone pays an equitable share, but at a lower rate.

In other areas, Kristen said our policymakers and our education leaders are looking at ways to fund education, make higher education more affordable and support workforce development within the changing economy.

“It can all seem a bit overwhelming, but if we approach our growth challenge the Utah way, which is to make a fiscally conservative, consistent effort over time, being mindful of how we spend the public’s money, we can pay for our growth equitably while also preserving our resources and maintaining our high quality of life,” she added.

As we talked I realized that part of the challenge we face is to help Utahns catch the vision of this effort. As Kristen noted, we can’t take a business as usual approach to our population growth challenges and opportunities. Rather, we must be ambitious and aggressive in our thinking. More information is sure to come regarding the Utah Life Elevated 2020 strategy. In the meantime, Kristen encourages readers to be proactive in community development and the legislative process. It’s our future that is at stake.