Guest opinion: Focusing on people will strengthen Utah’s economy

What will the 2018 Utah Legislative session mean for Utah’s economy? Big-ticket issues such as state tax reform and proposals to expand Medicaid promise to have significant effects.

The economic impact of the legislative session is best judged not simply by facts and figures, because an economy is really made up not of numbers, but of people. And the people that ought to be of greatest concern to policymakers are those most in need of economic opportunity – Utah’s working families and vulnerable populations.

For tax reform, this means rural Utahns. To truly strengthen the state economy, instead of just privileged portions of it, tax reform must encourage new jobs and economic development in rural Utah. Clearly, rural Utah has economic disadvantages relative to the state’s population centers. But too often, when faced with the economic plight of rural Utah, we simply shrug and act like we cannot do anything to save dying communities.

If our own community were on the decline, we would likely have a dozen ideas for how changes in public policy could help the situation. Rural Utah, while facing unique challenges, is no different in this regard. When people with high-paying jobs can telecommute, it is only a lack of political will and policy imagination that prevents our tax policies from encouraging the creation of such jobs in Utah’s small towns and rural counties. In a town of hundreds or a county of thousands, a few high-paying jobs could go a long way toward economic security.

By the same token, Medicaid expansion must uplift the economic prospects of Utah’s most vulnerable – especially the low-income children and single mothers in traditional Medicaid. The failure of past Medicaid expansion proposals stemmed from their insistence upon moving some into health coverage with superior access to care, while leaving the most economically vulnerable behind in coverage with inferior access. This approach only worsens the economic plight of Utah’s most vulnerable, as they wait even longer for care and watch those fortunate enough to be part of the expansion get moved ahead of them in the health care line.

Medicaid expansion should instead uplift all of Utah’s vulnerable populations. This means offering the same type of commercial health coverage to low-income children and single mothers that we enjoy ourselves. It also means Medicaid policies that offer vulnerable Utahns the dignity and achievement of rising out of poverty, rather than a degrading poverty trap driven by the fear of losing health coverage with the next pay raise or job advancement. These policies would include work requirements and health coverage that can go with Medicaid enrollees – should they choose – even as gainful employment moves them up the economic ladder and off the Medicaid rolls.

If state tax reform and Medicaid expansion boost the economic opportunities of rural Utahns, single mothers and low-income children, these policy reforms will have taken truly significant steps toward making Utah’s economy – its people – stronger and healthier. On the other hand, if the dialogue gets pulled off track by a focus on economic statistics or questions about the humanity of our political opponents, we are likely to fail to do anything meaningful for the vast majority of the people of Utah.

And since Utah’s economy really is just its people, economic failure cannot be an option.

Derek Monson is executive director at Sutherland Institute, a public policy organization located in Salt Lake City that advocates for free markets, civil society and community-driven solutions.