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Utah’s high-tech corridor, spanning southern Salt Lake County and northern Utah County, received a big boost from the Utah Legislature in its recently concluded session. By voting to take incremental steps to move the state prison, which is squarely in the middle of the high-tech corridor, lawmakers are creating a $1 trillion business opportunity for the state, according to Utah’s top economic development leaders.
The prison re-location issue is one example of a generally pro-business attitude displayed during the 2013 legislative session that concluded in mid-March. Business leaders, overall, were pleased with the outcome of the session, although some business priorities were not approved, and not many visionary or far-reaching initiatives made it through the 45-day legislative gauntlet.
This was a “steady-as-she-goes” session. While few major new initiatives were approved, lawmakers continued Utah’s strong record of good management and frugal budgeting.
Utah’s 104 citizen legislators are regular people with regular jobs, professions and businesses. So they understand the private sector and are inclined to keep taxes low and government limited. They were careful in their use of tax dollars, balancing the state budget and declining to raise any taxes.
However, lawmakers did not take big steps or endorse big ideas. An exception was the initiative to move the prison. Representatives of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the Economic Development Corporation of Utah say relocating the prison, providing 700 acres of bare ground currently surrounded by large and small high-tech businesses, is an enormous opportunity for Utah. They believe a world-class development will occur, attracting major businesses that provide great jobs. Experts in many disciplines are extremely excited about the possibilities.
State legislatures, by their nature, are more reactive than pro-active. They tend to look short term rather than long term. Their election cycles are only two years or four years, so they mostly focus on the budget for the next 18 months, and what can be accomplished right away.
But lawmakers in the 2013 session did take some important small steps to keep some major initiatives moving forward.
For example, energy development is one of Utah’s greatest long-term economic development opportunities, and lawmakers appropriated $3 million for a Uintah Basin transportation study. Oil and gas production in Uintah and Duchesne counties is expected to increase so much over the next decade that the region’s transportation facilities will be overwhelmed. The study will consider highway expansion, rail and pipelines as possible means to move product to refining facilities.
Another nod to future planning was the appropriation of nearly $3 million for a study to determine the best ways to move hikers, skiers, workers and tourists up and down Utah’s Wasatch Front canyons. Mountain transportation is a big idea that could be a game-changer for Utah, protecting the environment while providing access to the close-by ski areas and alpine vistas. Utah would be unique in the country in providing clean, safe access to the mountains, rivaling world-class European resorts and mountain transportation systems.
Out-of-town skiers at the airport (or locals anywhere on the Wasatch Front) could conceivably get on a train and be skiing an hour later without having to rent a car or navigate congested, snow-packed canyon roads and crowded resort parking lots. Further development of hotels and restaurants could occur at the mouths of canyons or downtown, rather than in the canyons, reducing human impact.
The cost of such a system would be enormous, but shared financing by all the stakeholders (ski industry, developers, conservation groups, transit agency, cities, county, state) could make it possible. Utah’s ski and tourism industries would have a significant advantage over Colorado, where resorts are hours away from the airport and downtown Denver.
Another positive note was the Legislature’s embrace of converting buses and state fleets to clean-burning natural gas (CNG) vehicles, helping to keep Utah’s air clean and reducing dependence on gasoline and diesel fuels. The initiative will require building natural gas fueling and maintenance infrastructure across the state. Thanks to Questar, Utah already has among the best CNG infrastructure in the nation. Utah now has the opportunity to lead the nation in conversion to CNG vehicles.
Education funding and reform was also a major priority for Utah business leaders. Business enterprises can’t be successful without an excellent, well-educated workforce. Aligning education with industry workforce needs is crucial to the future of the state.