Opinion: Want to raise a family in Utah? Here’s what you should know first
Utah ranks first in the nation for economic outlook, but it is only the 13th best state to raise a family — here’s why
On April 18, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s ALEC-Laffer report again ranked Utah tops in the nation for economic outlook. With our balanced budget, flat tax rate and historically low unemployment, Utah operates like a well-oiled machine, yet WalletHub’s recent report ranked Utah only the 13th best state in which to raise a family. Why this disparity? A snapshot of bills passed in the 2022 legislative session brings this disparity into focus. What becomes glaringly apparent is that Utah’s families were not top priority for our legislators. Let’s take a closer look.
The big news for families is that education received a $383 million or 9% funding increase, $12.2 million of which went to full-day kindergarten and another $10 million to teacher bonuses (a nod to the burdens of the pandemic). This increase was a step in the right direction but unlikely to arrest the teacher shortage that poses a consistent threat to public education.
2021 had the highest percentage increase in home values on record (27%) and over half of Utah households cannot afford a home, yet our Legislature gave housing only passing attention. Homelessness and low-income housing received $70 million, competitive grants received $55 million and housing preservation received $15 million. The only other affordable housing bill passed required cities with public transit hubs to develop plans for moderate- and low-income housing within a one-mile radius of those hubs.
The highly touted tax cut of 2022 did not benefit Utah families. Sponsor Dan McCay calculated that a family of four making a median income of $72,000 will clear $98 in tax relief annually. Families earning over $72,000 will save more, but for families earning less than $72,000, permanent tax relief will be negligible. Yes, an earned income credit was included in the bill, but it must be applied for to be received and is nonrefundable. The real winners in this year’s tax cut? Utah corporations, which received the same .1% permanent tax cut as individuals, and will continue to flock to Utah in droves.
Confronted with the most severe drought in Utah’s history, our Legislature appropriated $40 million to save the Great Salt Lake, a whopping $200 million to meter secondary water and $20 million toward agricultural water use. Given the fact that 82% of Utah’s water use is agricultural, not residential, commercial or industrial, one has to wonder whether our Legislature fully understands the gravity of the crisis. Wouldn’t public funds be better spent to change Utah’s antiquated water laws and watering systems that encourage waste?
Utah has the sixth highest suicide rate in the nation in 2019 and ranked 47th for overall mental health in 2021, yet our Legislature gave only tentative support to stem the suicide and mental health crisis. The Legislature expanded public employer health care coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatment. Non-physician practitioners can now civilly commit patients in mental health crises. School districts will now create anti-bullying and harassment plans and track demographic data of bullied children, but more must be done to increase accessibility to mental health care, expand telehealth, protect and empower those at risk.
Women and children received only token assistance this year. A few bills targeted women’s health and the paucity of child care. Unlicensed child care providers can now care for six instead of four children in their homes (which benefits women, but imperils infants). Incarcerated women will receive contraceptives, and women’s restrooms in Utah schools will stock menstrual supplies, but zero legislation was passed to address income insecurity. A few bills in the 2022 session actually exacerbated poverty for women and children. A bill shortening the length of the marriage (from date of divorce to the date of filing for divorce) for the purpose of calculating alimony will predictably reduce alimony awards for women and boost the incomes of divorcing men.
WalletHub wasn’t wrong. Utah families know they need affordable housing, affordable health care, transportation options, access to law enforcement, mental health resources, clean air and water. Unfortunately, most of these issues did not appear on legislative radar this session.
Win-win solutions are possible. We can maintain Utah’s robust economy and improve the quality of life for Utah’s families. What is good for Utah’s families is good for Utah!
Lorraine Brown is a Republican candidate for Utah House District 10, which includes parts of Weber County.