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Economic excellence, air quality and other lessons from 2019

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Downtown Salt Lake City, with the Wasatch Mountains in the background.

Douglas Pulsipher

Utah is a remarkable place, an example to the nation and the world of a well-managed state where diverse people and organizations work together in relative harmony to solve problems, accomplish big goals and improve the quality of life.

The year 2019 was further confirmation of Utah’s success and progress. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights and lessons learned from the year that is about to become a memory.

Economic excellence

Utah’s economy was highly resilient in 2019, despite trade wars and a slowing global economy. At year’s end, Utah posted its lowest unemployment rate in more than a dozen years, at 2.4% (second lowest in the country). Consumer confidence is high, inflation is low, the stock market is booming, and our population grew by close to 60,000 people. Utah’s poverty rate dropped to the third lowest in the nation.

Employment growth was very strong at 3.3%, helped by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the Economic Development Corporation of Utah using prudent tax incentives to help Utah businesses expand and to attract new businesses to the state. Five businesses announced 3,000 new jobs in December alone, with nearly 10,000 jobs announced from 20 companies during the year. Utah ends the year with one of the most diversified economies in the nation. 

The downside of rapid economic and population growth is high housing prices and labor shortages. Affordable housing and workforce development remain big challenges for 2020.

Big development projects

Excellent progress was made on three large, game-changing, futuristic projects that will benefit Utah for decades to come. One is the new Salt Lake International Airport, with the first phase to open in September 2020.

Significant planning was accomplished for the Utah Inland Port, close to the airport, which will become a major intermodal transportation hub, enabling commerce and manufacturing and creating thousands of good-paying jobs. It will become the most modern, sustainable, high-tech inland port in the world.

Nearly adjacent to the new airport, construction on the new state prison continued in 2019. Relocating the prison will enable exciting development at the Point of the Mountain region, bolstering Utah’s tech sector and attracting new businesses and jobs.

Air quality, climate change and conservation

Utah made significant progress cleaning up our air in 2019 with several legislative initiatives and the new availability of Tier 3 automobile fuel. Gov. Gary Herbert has worked hard on these initiatives and deserves credit.

Within the business community, strong momentum was evident to reduce carbon emissions and make businesses more sustainable. The movement toward clean, carbon-free energy production is gaining strength, and an electrified transportation system is on the horizon. The trend away from fossil fuels in Utah is accelerating.

Political and public policy progress

The biggest public policy accomplishment in 2019 was comprehensive tax reform, led by legislative leaders and Gov. Herbert. Further tweaks are needed, but the foundation is in place for a modern, balanced tax system. And Utahns will receive a nice tax cut, as well.

Increased and stable education funding, with higher pay for teachers, was also discussed and negotiated in 2019, with dialogue to continue in 2020. A major study by Envision Utah outlined the need for higher teacher salaries. Stakeholders are committed to raising teacher pay to professional levels. 

The 2019 municipal elections saw qualified, hardworking leaders chosen at the local level across the state. Erin Mendenhall’s election as Salt Lake City mayor signals good working relationships for all the stakeholders in Utah’s capital city. 

At the federal level, venerable Sen. Orrin Hatch left office and was replaced by the very capable Sen. Mitt Romney. Hatch was instrumental in passing a major tax reduction and jobs bill that boosted the 2019 economy. Its positive impact will be felt for years to come.

Romney quickly made a reputation for himself as an independent senator who is focused squarely on solving problems.

New homeless shelters

Another major 2019 accomplishment was the opening of three new homeless resource centers. While the homeless challenge will never be “solved,” Utah is showing the nation how to compassionately serve thousands of people dealing with homelessness, unemployment, addiction and mental health problems. 

Lesson of 2019

Utah has demonstrated that by working together to solve problems, without caring who gets credit, we can make remarkable progress on tough and divisive issues like tax reform and homelessness. Real collaboration and compromise, despite differences, can produce great education, ample jobs for our young people, clean air, a sustainable environment and an enviable quality of life.   

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