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Utah’s moonshots: Top priorities for the future

FILE — The inversion settles over the Salt Lake Valley Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015.
FILE — The inversion settles over the Salt Lake Valley Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah is a great place to live, work and raise a family. Our economy is thriving and we enjoy an enviable quality of life.

However, we can and must do even better. The global marketplace is incredibly competitive. If we ease up even for a moment, we will be overtaken. So what is the agenda that will take Utah to the next level? What are the “big gears,” the moonshots, that will keep Utah ahead of the pack — especially as our population doubles over the next several decades?

Working in conjunction with and LaVarr Webb, we asked about 30 Utah leaders in business, nonprofits and government to list and prioritize the projects and issues that will most positively impact the state over the next five to 10 years if we accomplish them, or most negatively impact the state if we don’t.

So here are Utah’s top priorities, our agenda for the future:

No. 1, far and away, is education funding and reform. Every respondent ranked it No. 1 except three, and they ranked it No. 2. We need education initiatives that boost Utah out of the cellar in per-pupil funding and make Utah a top-10 education state. Utah’s abundant children are the state’s greatest asset if prepared for the jobs of tomorrow, or Utah’s greatest liability if not properly prepared.

One leader said: “This is Utah’s most critical issue. We need a bigger commitment. What if Utah supported every young person’s education at least through community college or the technical college level? We would have companies of the future fighting to establish their workforces in Utah.”

No. 2, also by an overwhelming margin, is air quality. One leader said, “This issue has the potential to derail all the other good things about Utah if we don’t solve it.” Another said, “I favor something radical here. We need to change behavior during inversions, to include major incentives to work from home and not commute during these days. State and local governments could do it, along with many businesses.”

No. 3, interestingly enough, is to continue to implement the SB54/Count My Vote initiative that will increase participation in Utah’s political system and encourage more mainstream people to engage in politics and run for office. “This is fundamental to making progress on education and many other issues,” said one leader.

No. 4 is continued transportation investment and innovative funding to cope with population growth. We need more public transit, biking/walking facilities, and preparation for high-tech highways, connected cars and self-driving vehicles. Leaders noted that dramatic changes are occurring in the transportation industry, and we must prepare for them.

No. 5 is preserving Utah’s sales tax base before it is eroded away as more purchases go online. “We need to better align our tax system with the modern economy,” said one leader. “This includes not only online sales tax collections, but also expanding sales taxes beyond the traditional ‘goods-only’ economy. We need to broaden the base and lower the rate.”

No. 6: Ensuring enough water for homes, industry, wildlife, agriculture and recreation, especially as our population booms. Water funding, conservation, development and subsidies must be addressed.

No. 7: Encourage smart residential and commercial development using Envision Utah principles with mixed-use designs, urban clusters around transit stops, and techniques that reduce infrastructure costs and highway congestion.

No. 8: Deal with downtown homeless/panhandling issues by spreading out homeless facilities, dealing with mental illness/drugs/crime, and protecting the city tax base and business expansion on downtown’s west side.

No. 9: Make progress on public lands issues; don’t allow the positive aspects of Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative to die.

No. 10: Push the Mountain Accord initiative forward, protecting the mountain environment and watershed while providing less impactful access to superb canyon/mountain experiences.

Also mentioned as key issues were the prison relocation and the development of the old prison property and surrounding open space to create a world-class, high-tech corridor; and the Salt Lake International Airport rebuild and development of an aerotropolis business ecosystem.

A. Scott Anderson is CEO and president of Zions Bank.