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The only surplus Utah has is a surplus of needs

SHARE The only surplus Utah has is a surplus of needs

Utah lawmakers talk about a surplus. The only surplus we have is a surplus of needs.

Utah has a surplus of needs because past Legislatures neglected public education, neglected higher education, neglected highways, neglected the poor, neglected health care, neglected public safety, neglected most of the things that improve the quality of life.

The current Legislature cannot hope to overcome the neglect of past Legislatures, but it has an opportunity to slow the decline and put us on a path toward responsible stewardship. If lawmakers don't act responsibly, Utah will continue its slide. And make no mistake about it, Utah is on a slippery slope to mediocrity . . . or worse.

Economists tell us Utah is doing OK. They say unemployment is low, economic growth is average and household income is good.

The number-crunchers should remove their green eye shades and look around. Visit crowded classrooms to see what teachers must confront every day. Travel to rural Utah, where poverty is endemic. Compare high school graduation rates in affluent neighborhoods with those in other areas. Look at the pressures on Utah's higher education system . . . and the dangerous compromises required to deal with those pressures. Talk to struggling service agencies — not just state agencies but church agencies, volunteer agencies and service clubs.

Look at the challenges threatening the survival of our superb arts organizations. Consider average wage levels — not income but wages.

Drive on Utah state roads — not the interstate highways but the roads serving rural areas. Examine the state's infrastructure — telephones, electricity, water, sewage, natural gas — most of it outdated and underregulated. Try to live for one month on what Utah's most important public employees earn — teachers, highway patrol officers, social service workers.

A recent report said we will have 200,000 additional students in our public schools by 2018. Where will they sit? Who will teach them? What will they learn? The time to prepare is now, not when it becomes one more crisis in a string of impending crises.

If those students — and today's students — hope to succeed in the modern world, they need education beyond high school. Where will they go to college? In order for Utah to compete, we need more college graduates. Economic development is undeniably linked to higher education. Utah higher education is bulging with students, but thousands more are denied access. The higher education governance system is broken. We need more college campuses, more college classrooms and more college teachers — not tomorrow but right now.

Legislators talk about economic development. But Utah's economic development depends on education. Economic development comes from generating new companies, not from bringing in old companies.

Twenty-first-century jobs are information-intensive jobs, not labor-intensive jobs.

One overcomplacent lawmaker said that when the students come, their parents will come with them, and their parents will pay taxes. Wake up! The students are here, the parents are here, and their tax money is here. It is not "surplus"; it's badly needed operating revenue.

Lawmakers spend too much time on trivia and not enough time dealing with these critical issues. Utah's news media are just as bad. They dwell on trivia, because it's easy. They avoid real issues, because it takes intelligence, time, effort and resources to cover meaningful subjects. Try to find a thoughtful report about education on television, or on radio, or in newspapers. Try to learn something important about rural Utah from the media. Try to understand why economic development and improvements in higher education are inexorably linked together.

Legislative talk about tax reduction is irresponsible. We got into this mess partly because past Legislatures reduced taxes when they should have been investing in the state's future.

No one in Utah ever missed a meal because he or she paid too much in taxes. Thousands miss meals every day because the state (our government) fails to provide food for children and others who need help.

For the average Utah family, the saving from proposed tax reductions wouldn't pay next month's cable TV bill. Instead of hoping for tax reduction, cancel HBO and spend more meaningful time with family, or neighbors, or both.

Does Utah have a surplus of revenue? Only the misinformed can believe such a preposterous notion.

Does Utah have a surplus of needs? Only the uninformed can believe otherwise.

G. Donald Gale is president of Words, Words, Words, Inc. He wrote 6,000 editorials for KSL, plus books, documentaries, speeches and countless letters of apology. His column appears monthly.