Chamber of Commerce policy summit: Can we keep Utah from becoming California?

Business leaders, government leaders, and academics held a victory lap Thursday morning, showcasing the success of Utah’s economy and quality of life at the annual Economic Outlook and Public Policy Summit. This question of maintaining success in the face of challenge permeated the conference. 

Rudyard Kipling could have summed it up with a spin to the start of his poem If, If you can keep your economy when everyone else is losing theirs

“Utah’s economy is one of the strongest, pound for pound, of any on the planet,” said Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce President Derek Miller to a crowded audience in the Grand America Hotel’s ballroom. “The growth we are experiencing is a result of our success.” 

Even in the face of constant environmental hand-wringing – and plenty of smoggy days – “Our air is the best it’s ever been,” Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner said in the legislative panel.  

Utah’s conundrum is can it continue to thrive in the face of the challenges our success has created. The state’s community-oriented culture and conservative business environment has attracted people from all over the world to come here and take part in the prosperity, but it’s also put enormous strain on public infrastructure, housing prices, and water resources. 

“We can’t become California,” said Gov. Spencer Cox. The way we do things in Utah is what Americans need to do if the country is going to survive, he continued, noting, “We’re going to have to start exporting our kids if we don’t get this right.” 

Across virtually every metric, Utah outperforms the nation – whether it’s lower reported COVID deaths (64.9 vs 167.1 per 100,000) or higher consumer confidence (76.9 percent vs 67.4 percent). These and other stats on biostatistics and the economy were released in the document Utah Informed: Visual Intellection for 2022 by the U of U’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, a cosponsor of the event. 

The No. 1 problem facing Utahns is a housing shortage. Utah’s increase in the housing price index was 28.3 percent in 2021, with our neighbors experiencing similar jumps of 23.9 percent (Arizona), 20.1 percent (Colorado), and 37.1 percent (Idaho). As with so many other successful red states, people fleeing troubled blue states are driving the price of housing through the roof in Utah. 

Salt Lake City has seen a 17.2 percent increase in rental prices, according to the Utah Informed document, putting it at No. 12 in the country. Six of the cities in the top 15 are in Florida, which has proven a magnet for disaffected urbanites in the last two years. Notably, one in four people who moved to Utah were originally born here. 

The state is, as usual, experiencing the highest population growth in the country, at 18.4 percent, however, it’s no longer proving immune to “the more than decade long birth dearth” that’s afflicted the country as value placed on traditional marriage and gender roles has declined. 

Over one-third of the growth in Utah was in Utah County, which has been named the part of America that has both the most religious participation and the best economy

Utah Informed showcases a variety of pandemic-related stats, such as the unsurprising revelation that educational outcomes have dropped and mental health problems have shot up. In 2015, only 15 percent of teenagers needed mental health interventions; last year, it was 24 percent. 

These and other issues will occupy the Legislature as its 45-day session prepares to start. We won’t know for years down the road if their efforts will keep Utah on the path of prosperity, or if our triumphs become our downfall. 

But, as Cox pointedly noted, we can’t become California. Because if we start to decay the way they have, then where will everyone go? 

Jared Whitley is an award-winning writer and longtime Utah and DC politico, having worked in the White House and US Senate. He has an MBA from Hult International Business School in Dubai.