With the Utah Legislature convening this week, the Deseret News spoke with a handful of rural lawmakers to understand the needs and priorities of their constituents. The issues range from universal concerns such as education, to more unique ones, like land and water use. Here is a look at what lawmakers hope to accomplish for rural Utahns this year.
Education was a common thread among all surveyed, as many worry about teacher shortages brought on in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. Training and retaining teachers is especially important in rural schools, where resources may already be scarce.
Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, is sponsoring a bill to allow retired teachers to return to part-time work without losing their retirement benefits.
“We’ve got knowledgeable, trained individuals who could come back to work for us, but then they’ll lose their ability to collect their retirement they’ve worked so hard for 30 years to receive,” she said.
Birkeland said she heard from a resident who moved to Summit County after retiring from teaching along the Wasatch Front. After learning that the local school didn’t have anyone to teach the subject she had specialized in, the teacher wanted to return to the classroom to help out, but was afraid of losing her benefits.
The bill would also extend to law enforcement officials, which Birkeland said is another issue many rural communities face.
“The reality is, in law enforcement and education, this is a statewide issue. We just do not have enough,” she said. “Obviously, there are labor shortages across the state and all industries. I think in law enforcement and education we could make some great strides.”
Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, also has his eye on various education bills — including extending sunset dates on existing provisions, performance funding goals for higher education and a resolution celebrating the 125th anniversary of the National Parent Teacher Association.
“I’ve tried to be very supportive of our rural schools,” he said, adding that he plans to request appropriations to conduct a seismic study in schools statewide. “Many of our schools throughout the state are getting up in age and constructed at a time where we didn’t have appropriate standards for construction.”
Land and water
Snow is also sponsoring a fairly technical bill that would change how property is inherited by dependents. His bill would protect co-tenants of land and, in theory, prevent agricultural land from being bought by developers and speculators. More importantly, he said, passage of the bill would grant Utah farmers and ranchers preferred status in applying for financial aid under the 2018 farm bill passed by Congress.
“The whole theory behind giving them preference under the farm bill ... is to preserve our agricultural land and our farms,” Snow said. “I think we’re going to find that a plan that can produce our food supplies is going to become more and more important in the future.”
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, is focused primarily on requesting money to improve water infrastructure in his district, which covers parts of Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan, Utah and Wasatch Counties. He said he is working to get funding to shore up the Joe’s Valley Reservoir dam — which sits on an earthquake fault line — near Orangeville, and hopes to see a new well built in Blanding, which would provide easier access to culinary water.
“That’s like 10 million bucks, which on the Wasatch Front don’t sound like much, but down in that area that’s a big deal,” Hinkins said. “They haul their water, a lot of them. They just go out and get their pickups and 55-gallon drums and go to town every couple of days and get water. They must’ve been doing it (that way) for 100 years.”
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, said he is working on a water rights bill of his own, which would give the state a say in contract water rights. The bill is yet to be introduced, but Lyman said it would address the issue of some localities not having access to a continual supply of water.
Job growth and opportunity
Utah’s economy is growing rapidly overall, but some parts of the state are being left behind. Hinkins, whose district relies on a dwindling coal mining industry, said he has seen the population shrink in rural counties as people follow mining jobs to Wyoming and Nevada. Wind, solar and other renewable energy sources don’t provide enough jobs to replace those lost as coal power plants are phased out.
“I’m not sure where that’s going to pan out,” Hinkins said. “We are good for 10 or 15 more years. Who knows where to go from there?”
Other parts of Hinkins’ district are expanding quickly and face growing pains familiar to those who live on the Wasatch Front — skyrocketing home prices and a rush to make infrastructure suitable for a growing population. Home prices are further inflated by people buying homes in rural towns and using them as seasonal homes or even short-term vacation rentals.
Fast-growing cities are scrambling to provide adequate amenities, Hinkins said, in some cases barely staying on top of demand for new schools, roads and sewer systems.
He said he expects growth to continue, especially for cities within driving range of Salt Lake City. With some people working remotely two or three days a week, he anticipates people would be willing to live in Price or Nephi and commute to Provo or Salt Lake City a couple of times a week.
Hinkins would like to see U.S. 6, which runs from Moab to Provo, eventually turned into a four-lane highway to reduce congestion and improve safety.
“It would help the Wasatch Front as well, because it costs so damn much,” he said. “You could have a lot nicer lifestyle living in Price ... than in Spanish (Fork) for the same amount of money.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated the 2022 general session starts next week. The Legislature actually convened Tuesday.