Economic growth remains a focus on education

Published: Saturday, March 16 2013 1:20 p.m. MDT

Legislators meet during the final day of legislature at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City  Thursday, March 14, 2013.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Legislators meet during the final day of legislature at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City Thursday, March 14, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

At the beginning of the Utah Legislature 2013 session, The Deseret News pledged to focus its legislative coverage on five key issues that matter to Utah families: early childhood education, college and career readiness, economic development, health care and well-being, and intergenerational poverty. See what transpired in each of those areas during this year's legislative session.

SALT LAKE CITY — Legislative efforts to put Utah in a position to maintain and build its healthy economy focused on education and the desire to free Point of the Mountain from the prison and clear the way for companies to enhance the burgeoning tech sector.

Lawmakers funded most of Gov. Gary Herbert's education priorities aimed at reaching his goal of 66 percent of Utahns earning a college degree or certificate by 2020. A key piece of that is investing in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education to take advantage of an anticipated boom in the information technology and life sciences industries.

"The more we have people qualified in these areas, the more we can be a magnet for companies that have these wonderful jobs," said Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George.

Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, said Utah continues to be a place where companies want to build and grow.

"If we don't take care of educating our future workforce, we won't have anybody to provide for these companies," he said. "I would say we've had a great partnership with the Legislature this session, and I mean that sincerely. I'm very excited what the future holds."

Herbert said businesses know Utah is on solid fiscal footing and that it wants the private sector to succeed.

"Hopefully, we're going to empower them to be innovators and creators of new goods and services, and the economy will continue to grow and expand," he said.

The Legislature, however, didn't do one thing many in the business community wanted, including the Salt Lake Chamber. It did not pass a statewide law against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in housing and employment practices.

Michael Weinholtz, CEO of CHG Healthcare Services, said not having such a law hurts Utah companies by limiting their access to a broader pool of employees they need to grow.

For economic development reasons, such a law would "announce to the world that Utah is not only open for business, we're open to everyone," he told lawmakers.

The Legislature also shot down a bill that would have provided tax credits for the development of a hotel near the Salt Palace Convention Center, the same make-good incentives the state routinely offers companies to build or expand in Utah.

"We are losing millions and millions of dollars a year and thousands of jobs because we do not have a convention space adequate enough," Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said during a House debate. "The expectation is that this hotel should generate $600 million over the next couple of decades."

Representatives of the annual Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, the state's largest convention, have said a convention center hotel is essential for Salt Lake hosting the show long-term. Between the summer and winter shows, Outdoor Retailer brings about $40 million to the state each year.

Lawmakers, though, did pass a law setting in motion possible relocation of the state prison.

Business and government leaders see land where the state prison currently sits as a prime location for economic development. The state's two largest metropolitan areas, both of which have major universities and expanding transit systems, converge at Point of the Mountain.

"In general, the area around Point of the Mountain has become a nexus for IT companies and medical device companies for very logical reasons," Eccles said.

A state-appointed board that studied relocating the prison estimated that development would result in a $20 billion boost to the economy and eventually as many as 40,000 jobs.

The Legislature last week established a new board that will solicit requests for proposals to tear down and build a new prison, estimated to cost $600 million.

The prospect of moving the 62-year-old facility has drawn opposition from some residents who believe taxpayers would be stung in the end, while developers pad their wallets.

"It's important that the committee that will evaluate this in the future looks at all of the different components and makes sure this thing presses out for the taxpayer," Eccles said.

E-mail: romboy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company