SALT LAKE CITY — For years, Utahns have agreed that the economy needed attention from state-level elected officials, but this year, a local survey indicates voters have something else on their minds.

Health care shot up from its fourth place in the past three election cycles, and is presently the top priority among Utahns randomly selected to participate in the Utah Foundation's 2016 Utah Priorities Project, released each gubernatorial election year.

"We want candidates for offices to be focusing on the issues that matter, rather than the kind of character attacks and sort of personal attacks we've been seeing in the presidential race so far this year," said Utah Foundation President Stephen Kroes. "We want to inform voters and the candidates."

Prolonged discussion on Medicaid expansion may have lifted that issue in Utah, but voter responses exhibited a clear distaste for the Affordable Care Act and associated rising medical costs, according to the report.

In addition to health care, air quality, education, taxes and government spending, and jobs and the economy round out the top-five priorities for Utah voters this year. The report also delivers an idea of whether voters think the state is squarely positioned and what residents think about the quality of life offered here.

The Utah Foundation's latest report indicates that "political divisiveness" at the national level has led to a slight decline in overall hope for Utah leaders, at least among the 500 or so voters surveyed initially and the 818 asked to rank issues. The majority of respondents think living in Utah is better than it was five years ago, the report states.

"With quality of life and the state of the economy strongly linked, it makes sense that most Utahns are feeling positive," according to the report. Additionally, fewer Utah voters who believe the state is "headed in the right direction" than was reported in the 2012 Utah Priorities Project.

While highlighting some continuing concerns, the latest report also points to a growing concern for a variety of environmental issues, including air and water quality, water supply issues and Utah's environment in general, some of which have never appeared as top priorities among voters in Utah.

"We all know how conservative Utah is, but there are three environmental topics on the list transcending the label of conservative or liberal," Kroes said. "People are paying more attention to it."

Separately, the economy, national security and health care emerged as the top three issues most important to Utahns in considering a presidential candidate in a Deseret News/KSL poll conducted by Dan Jones and Associates March 8-15.

The 500 registered voters surveyed were asked to rank their top three issues on a list of 14 issues. Least important as it relates to presidential candidates were climate change, poverty and abortion, the poll showed.

In the next couple of weeks, the foundation intends to release results of a survey among candidates running for statewide offices, and of convention delegates following that. It will also divulge individual reports on the top 10 priorities and hold community forums at college campuses to get a better idea of what issues face Utahns leading up to the election in November.

"We really want informed voters, informed candidates and strong dialogue on important issues," Utah Foundation chairman Bryson Garbett said during a luncheon on Thursday.

Kroes said the issues Utahns divulged as priorities are "straight from the population," as respondents were first asked open-ended questions, the responses of which were pared down to 21 in various similar themes and then ranked.

"We are confident we are tapping into the right issues," he said, adding that voters seem particularly energized this election cycle.

The entire report can be found online at www.utahfoundation.org.

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The Top 10 Issues for 2016

  1. Health care
  2. Air quality
  3. K-12 education
  4. State taxes and government spending
  5. Jobs and the economy
  6. Water supply and quality
  7. Crime
  8. Partisan politics
  9. Homelessness and poverty
  10. The environment

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