By Brice Wallace
The next couple of months will feature legislative action to reinvigorate Utah’s economy, predicts House Speaker Brad Wilson.
Speaking at a webinar about government’s role in economic recovery from the coronavirus, Wilson said a special legislative session June 18-19 will focus on cutting the state government budget, “but at the same time, we’re going to be laying the groundwork for this economic renaissance and revival for the whole state.”
Over the next 60 days, he said, lawmakers will have a dual effort: “Managing the state budget — ensuring that we can pay our bills — and at the same time, laying the foundation from a policy perspective to pull the right levers and get leverage to rebuild the economy as fast as we can.”
While Utah “is doing exceptionally well” among states for its relatively low unemployment rate and is positioned well to rebound from the pandemic’s impacts on the economy, Wilson said he has learned that external disruptive forces can be embraced and can represent opportunity. He stressed that policymakers need to avoid short-term thinking and instead anchor their thinking in envisioning what Utah could be a decade from now.
“Take advantage of this disruptive time we’ve got right now and sort of recast our future trajectory of this state,” is how he phrased it.
Still, he said, they need to restart the economy “with care,” meaning balancing protection of vulnerable people with getting demand for products and services back to normal.
The reinvention of the Utah economy will be a focus for the next year or two, he said. One way is “thinking about education in a different way” to boost workforce development and “closing the achievement gap” while tying it into retraining Utah’s workforce for the new economy.
Other ways need to consider quality-of-life issues such as cleaner air, less freeway congestion and promoting Utah’s recreation assets. “And at the same time, or even maybe most importantly, the underpinning of this needs to be to protect having the most-diverse economy in the country because it unleashes all the opportunities that we’re looking for for people,” Wilson said.
Wes Curtis, senior advisor at the Gardner Policy Institute and who formerly directed rural policy in Utah state government, chose, like Wilson, to look at opportunities presented by COVID-19. One is that many Utahns are getting a chance to experience recreational spots in the state, taking up some of the slack from the international visitors who are avoiding them during the virus.
“So, this is potentially opening up some new markets. In fact, I really believe we’re seeing an increase in demand for outdoor recreation,” Curtis said. “With movies and concerts no longer viable entertainment options, people are discovering the value of outdoor recreation and Utah needs to double down on its status as a national leader in developing outdoor recreation opportunities.”
Another possibility for a rural Utah economic revival comes from remote work, he said. “As everyone knows, people are working from home these days and companies are finding this a viable and cost-saving way of doing business,” he said, adding that surveys also show that some city-dwellers are worried about population density and desire to leave their cities.
“This move to remote work, coupled with what could be some level of urban flight, could turn into a real opportunity for rural communities, and I would encourage the state to help rural Utah position itself to take advantage of this opportunity and develop the infrastructure and support networks that are needed with such things as technology and innovation centers and co-working spaces.”
Utahns also should ensure that outsiders realize that most of rural Utah has broadband capacity matching what is available in urban areas, he said.
House Assistant Minority Whip Angela Romero said that House Democrats are concerned about education and about government social services for vulnerable populations, both of which have ties to the economy.
“If we don’t have a quality education, we don’t have our best economy,” Romero said. “If we’re not taking care of our essential workers, we’re not going to flatten that [virus infection] curve and it’s going to impact all of us.”