Spring is here and exciting elections are underway. But it’s important to take a look back at the legislative session that concluded earlier this month, and look forward to completing some unfinished business.
I want to thank Utah’s 104 citizen legislators for their good work and wish them well as they return to jobs and normal routines. One of the strengths of Utah’s lawmaking body is that its members are not professional politicians. They are just like us, working in a variety of professions, living in our neighborhoods, and interacting daily with average Utahns. They are in tune with the pulse of Utah and they represent us well.
In a previous column, I suggested three priorities that I hoped the Legislature would substantively address — education funding, health care access and support for Utah’s neediest citizens. These matters are closely interrelated.
For example, if we make Utah a top 10 education state, as we must do, and prepare all of our young people for quality jobs, then our economy will be stronger, more people will work, and we will reduce poverty. Good education is truly the ticket out of poverty and deprivation.
If we provide health care access for low-income citizens, we also reduce poverty and homelessness. Large hospital and doctor bills are a key reason people lose their homes and can’t work their way out of crushing debt.
Programs that help needy citizens to help themselves provide stability so children stay in school or in child care while parents work or receive needed training. These programs help break the cycle of poverty.
The 2016 Legislature made good progress on all of these matters, but more remains to be done. Lawmakers expanded health care access to serve about 16,000 of Utah’s most vulnerable citizens. As the state budget allows, this program should be expanded to cover other low-income uninsured Utahns, bringing in significant federal dollars already paid by Utahns for this purpose.
The Legislature also passed intent language to allow the University of Utah to begin planning for a new medical school complex to ensure we have sufficient doctors for our future needs. This will be a multi-year project, with about 80 percent of new facility costs raised through private donations.
The Legislature appropriately dedicated most new state revenue to public and higher education, and passed some excellent education reform legislation to increase academic achievement, improve graduation rates and increase post-high school degrees and certifications. Our legislators know that our children and grandchildren are Utah’s greatest economic asset — or our greatest liability if we don’t prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow that will support a family.
We still need to provide stable, long-term education funding levels that will move Utah out of the cellar in terms of per-pupil funding and ensure that our young people perform in the top echelons nationally and internationally. Education First will work with the governor and legislative leaders during the interim to develop a comprehensive revenue plan for the next session. Taking public education to the next level is the best way to ensure Utah’s long-term prosperity.
The Legislature also dealt directly with homelessness and poverty by funding the first part of a multi-year plan to expand homeless services and housing and address the root causes of homelessness. All of the experts and stakeholders are on board to make this new approach successful.
Utah’s Legislature made good progress on the state’s most pressing problems, while remaining responsible and frugal, with no new bonding or tax increases. Rainy day funds are at the highest levels ever. Much important work remains to be done, but that is the nature of government and society.
A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.