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Why Utah leaders call this economic ranking for the state ‘monumental’

Utah’s economic outlook tops the nation for 15 years in a row

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Downtown Salt Lake City, pictured here on Oct. 12, 2020.

Downtown Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. For the 15th year in a row, Utah has again been ranked top of the U.S. for its economic forecast.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

For the 15th year in a row, Utah has again been ranked top of the U.S. for its economic forecast.

As it has for the last 14 years, Utah is again the No. 1 state in the nation for its economic outlook, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council’s new “Rich States, Poor States” report released Monday.

It’s an achievement that Senate President Stuart Adams, who served as the council’s chairman last year, said was a “really big deal” for the Beehive State.

“It is monumental,” Adams, R-Layton, told the Deseret News in an interview Monday, praising the three economists — Arthur Laffer, Stephen Moore and Jonathan Williams — who wrote the report.

“With interest rates rising, with inflation on the horizon, this speaks very well for Utah’s future. And even with some of those issues, our future is bright,” Adams said. “It’s been bright in the past, and it’s equally as bright right now. Fifteen is a really good number. It’s amazing that we could be No. 1 for 15 years in a row.”

The economic outlook rankings are forecasts based on states’ standings in 15 policy variables, including tax rates, debt service, tax spending limits, liability, union laws and more. Generally, states that spend less and tax less see higher growth rates than states that tax and spend more, the report states.

ALEC describes itself as “America’s largest nonpartisan organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.”

“Utah’s example of collaboration, good policy and a forward-thinking mentality remains a shining example for the rest of the nation to follow,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in a prepared statement. “We are honored to receive this award for the 15th consecutive year and will continue working to pass policies that keep Utah the best state to live, work and play.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also weighed in, applauding the ranking.

“This administration will continue working hard to achieve economic success that lifts all of Utah,” the governor tweeted.

Arizona scores on economic performance

One state, however, did outrank Utah in another category.

The report’s authors ranked Arizona No. 1 in the nation, just ahead of Utah as No. 2, for economic performance.

Economic performance, as opposed to economic outlook, is a “backward-looking” measure based on a state’s performance on state GDP, absolute domestic migration and nonfarm payroll employment. That measure details the state’s individual performances over the past decade based on those economic measures, the report states.

If he had his way, Adams said Utah won’t fall behind Arizona in that ranking again.

“Arizona did something I’d like to do (here in Utah),” Adams said, pointing specifically to the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature’s move last year to cut the income tax rate for most of the state’s taxpayers down to about 2.5%, depending on income levels.

“We can’t let them be No. 1 in that area, so we’re going to go after it,” Adams said.

The Arizona income tax cut was part of a larger, nearly $2 billion tax reform package that’s since drawn controversy, including a voter referendum that blocked it from taking effect until voters can decide its fate.

The tax cuts mainly benefit the wealthy, The Associated Press reported. The average Arizonan earning between $75,000 and $100,000 will save $231 a year in state income taxes, while the average taxpayer earning between $500,000 and $1 million a year will save more than $12,000, according to the Legislature’s budget analysts.

Arizona Republican lawmakers have been talking for months about repealing and replacing the tax plan with a new version to sidestep the referendum, the AP reported.

Utah, on the other hand, moved ahead with a much more modest income tax cut this year, but one that hasn’t faced a referendum.

Utah lawmakers and the governor approved a $193 million tax cut package, including a $163 million income tax rate reduction, dropping the state’s income tax rate from 4.95% to 4.85%. It also included $16 million for a nonrefundable earned income tax credit and a $15 million expansion for the state’s Social Security tax credit.

Utah’s legislative leaders have repeatedly said they’re not done cutting taxes for Utahns, and they expect to do more in 2023. But they also have their eyes set on addressing what they’ve called a “structural imbalance” within Utah’s budget, with income tax revenue outpacing sales tax revenue growth.

Under the Utah Constitution, income tax revenue can only be spent on public education and some social services — but Republican legislative leaders have proposed amending the constitution to eliminate that earmark to give more flexibility to the state’s income tax dollars.

Wilson earlier this year floated a proposal to put that constitutional amendment on the ballot that could also contemplate eliminating the state’s portion of the sales tax on food — a proposal that’s been more favored by Democrats and poverty advocates than cutting the income tax.

Utah legislative leaders did not take up a possible constitutional amendment to lift the education earmark during the 2022 session — but they did say it’s a conversation that will likely continue next year. It’s a debate that’s likely to get heated, especially because education stakeholders have long opposed lifting that earmark.

Adams acknowledged such a constitutional amendment is “politically hard” but added, “I think there’s a way to do it if we can get everybody understanding that we still would fund education at a very high level.”

Asked if legislative leaders do intend to advance that constitutional amendment next year, Adams said he’s not “married to any one solution, but I am focused on trying to make sure” Utah continues to have a “strong economy ... and quality of life that Utahns deserve.”