SALT LAKE CITY — With the coronavirus pandemic still casting a large shadow over global, national and state economies, local business leaders are urging Utah lawmakers to focus their efforts on strategies that will help the Beehive State become an example of resiliency that others could follow.
The Salt Lake Chamber is releasing its list of legislative priorities for the upcoming 2021 Legislature scheduled to run Jan. 19 through March 5. While the state’s economy has fared better than most, there are still lingering issues that need to be addressed before Utahns can begin to recover fully from the impact of the COIVD-19 outbreak, according to the organization’s top executive.
“We are still in the middle of the pandemic. We see the light at the end of the tunnel, the light is real,” said chamber President and CEO Derek Miller. “The vaccine is the real deal and we’re going to get through this pandemic, but for now that light is still just a pinpoint and we still have a long, dark tunnel to walk through.”
He said the most important thing that can be done for the economy has very little to do with traditional economics, but everything to do with combating the coronavirus.
“The No. 1 battle, right now, is vaccine distribution. The policy priority for us as it relates to getting through the pandemic is making sure that government works hand in hand with the business community ensuring that we have a well-thought-out and well-executed vaccine distribution,” he told the Deseret News. “Business, I believe, has an important role to play in this by communicating and developing confidence in our employees and being able to take the vaccine. Of course, the vaccine has to be available to them, so that’s on the government side.”
He said this year the chamber is dually focused on short-term recovery related to health care and equally focused on long-term prosperity regarding its legislative and business advocacy agenda.
“We’re really pleased to work closely with the Utah Department of Health, for example, on the ‘stay safe to stay open’ campaign,” he said. “We hope that we’ll be able to continue to work with state officials on the vaccine distribution.”
“Our message to the Legislature and this new governor administration in Utah had going into the pandemic the best-performing economy in the country. That was due to having the best business climate in the country,” Miller said. “Relatively speaking, our economy overall is still doing well. But let’s not do anything that would (harm) the very strong business climate that was built over the last 10 to 15 years.”
To that point, he said the group will ask for a moratorium on new business regulation.
“These businesses — especially small businesses — they’re spending every single day focused on keeping their doors open and keeping their people employed in jobs,” he said. “To add new regulatory burdens in that environment would just be a distraction. It would require them to take their eye off the ball and it would not be good for this fledgling economic recovery that we’re in.”
He added that infrastructure spending is really important in the category of bolstering economic recovery. There can also be tax incentives given to businesses that provide child care opportunities for employees, he said.
“That’s going to help more people be able to come back into the workforce,” Miller said. “It’s going to be especially important as some telecommuting opportunities change with people going back into actual offices.”
He said improved mass transportation is also a key ingredient to providing opportunities for low- and moderate-income individuals to get to and from work, which will enhance their ability to advance economically and have a positive impact on the environment.
Among the other high-priority issues are workforce development and education.
“We’re asking the Legislature and the governor’s office to help the business community work more closely with K-12, higher education, and to have specific programs that are again targeted to meet workforce shortages in specific industries,” he explained. “That’s going to mean more investment in some of our trades in our community colleges and focus on computer science training in every high school. Everything that we can do to help increase a skilled workforce is going to pay dividends for a long time to come.”
Lastly, Miller said the chamber is prioritizing efforts to address the issue of the growing affordable housing shortage along the Wasatch Front that is also spreading throughout the rest of the state.
“Housing affordability issue has been a priority of the chamber for several years,” he said. “To make an investment in more public transit, that’s going to help on the housing side because it’s going to help people to be able to access their jobs.”
“(Also), the construction industry throughout the pandemic — especially in multifamily housing — has been one where we’ve seen an uptick, so that’s probably a good sign and something that we need to keep going,” Miller said.