Originally submitted to Utah Business.
Perhaps you’ve heard the stories. People are talking about Utah. Prominent magazine articles and news stories feature Utah’s nation-leading job growth, low unemployment and economic development success. When you travel, people inquire about Utah’s economic achievements. You fill up for gas at Costco and the guy in the car next to you with out-of-state license plates comments on how vibrant the state seems. Utah has caught the eye of people all around the country. They ask, “Why is Utah so prosperous?”
A Utah story is emerging. It’s a story of vibrancy, dynamism and success. It’s a story of leadership. It’s natural to want to learn more.
Ed O’Malley is an author and nationally recognized expert on leadership. I once attended a workshop with him and heard him say, “There is a link between leadership and well-being.” The comment hit a chord that continues to play in my mind. We get a say in our success. States that prosper benefit from great leadership.
I worked closely for many years with Utah’s former governor Mike Leavitt. He taught me that prosperity is a relay race. Each generation of leaders runs their lap and then passes the baton. Each runner is propelled by the runner of an earlier lap. It’s a generational relay. If each generation of leaders does their part, the state prospers.
Right now, thanks to great leadership – past and present — Utah is winning the race. I’d like to highlight three areas where Utah governors and legislators have really shined.
Economists encourage investment because it increases productivity. The rebuild of I-15 through Utah’s urban center lowered transportation costs for businesses and households by reducing congestion. Consider the magnitude of the I-15 Core project in Utah County. It involved 10 new interchanges, 63 bridges, and 655 new signs. Elected officials made hard choices and Utahns made sacrifices. Today, we are the beneficiaries of this investment.
A similar story can be told for Utah’s outstanding rail transit system and the current rebuild of the Salt
Lake City International Airport. These are huge capital assets. Investment in them improves worker and business productivity and our life quality. It makes Utah more successful and attractive, today and in the future.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention investment in human capital – our education system. In the early 2000ds, Utah’s governor and legislators set a goal and provided the funding to double the number of engineers trained in this state. They succeeded and today Utah’s innovation economy reaps the benefits from this investment.
The state also made huge strides in investing more in public and higher education. The 2018 Utah Legislature reached a compromise with a citizens’ initiative called Our Schools Now. They agreed to fund public education enrollment growth plus $375 million annually in increased investment. The plan requires voters to approve a motor fuel tax increase this fall. If successful, per pupil spending will rise by $845. The compromise also includes significant new money for higher education to pay for growth, salaries and scholarships. The Our Schools Now compromise is a great example of today’s decision-makers running their generational lap with pace, ensuring better outcomes for future Utahns.
Utah has a vibrant and growing innovation economy. It started a long time ago with major contributions to the success of the hearing aid, television, artificial arm, artificial heart, and computer graphics. Utah State Government was the first government anywhere to accept digital signatures. Even the “Intel Inside” tagline was created at a Salt Lake City advertising firm.
Today, the state is home to Silicon Slopes, where companies like Adobe, Vivint, eBay, IM Flash, Pluralsight, Qualtrics, InsideSales, Dell, Lucid, Domo, Banyan and many others employ thousands of Utahns. The 25-mile stretch from Midvale to Pleasant Grove accounted for nearly 40 percent of Utah’s job growth since 2010. That’s over 90,000 net new jobs!
This economic dynamism would not be happening, but for smart decisions by business leaders and elected officials to provide the needed workforce and infrastructure. Utah’s beautiful landscapes don’t hurt either!
I teach public finance at the University of Utah. I share with my students a fiscal responsibility checklist that includes these practices: AAA bond rating, balanced budget, line-item veto, statutory spending limitation, and budget reserve accounts to save for a rainy day. Utah has every one of these measures in place. Sadly, the United States of America has none of them.
Again, great leadership helps Utah prosper.
When I meet with business leaders and elected officials I always encourage them to relish prosperous times, but continually assess how they can run a better race before they pass the baton. Among the most important questions are these:
Are we saving enough for a rainy day?
Are businesses and government investing enough in human and physical capital?
And, are we making social cohesion and cultural integration a priority?
On behalf of a grateful state, I want to thank Utah governors and legislators, past and present, for their service. There is a link between leadership and prosperity and Utah has found it.