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A House committee approved a proposal Monday that would create a $2.5 million tech scholarship program that trades tuition retirement benefits for Utah students who stay in-state to work following graduation.

SALT LAKE CITY — While the sponsor of legislation that would create a $2.5 million program to offer debt relief to Utah college grads in STEM fields that stay in-state to work would bolster critical workforce needs in the growing tech industry, critics say it's an unfair attack on the fair market.

Sen. Ann Milner, R-Ogden, said her SB104 would create a program similar to a previous effort that retired student loan debt for educators that stayed and worked in Utah schools after graduation.

This time, however, the initiative would incentivize students to pursue education paths in one of five yet-to-be-determined but likely tech-centric categories, according to Milner. After graduation, the program participants would have 25 percent of outstanding tuition costs and fees eliminated for every year they work for a Utah employer.

"It really is trying to align, at the top level, our ability to meet some job needs," Milner said. "(The program) provides a final kind of piece of that puzzle for working out meeting our talent needs in the state of Utah."

Business leaders across the state have been bemoaning the lack of local talent to fill the unmet need in Utah's quickly expanding technology and innovation sector, a point that was further driven home at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit last month. At that event, Aaron Skonnard, CEO of Pluralsight, a wildly succesful Utah-based online education company, noted there were currently 4,000 unfilled tech jobs in the state.

Milner said the Governor's Office of Economic Development would help identify the five education areas that would qualify for the tuition benefit and that the bill was designed to be flexible, and adaptable, as the state's needs progress and possibly change.

Abby Osborne, vice president for government relations for the Salt Lake Chamber, told the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee on Monday that the state was losing the battle of keeping homegrown talent at home after graduation.

"We export way more jobs than we import," Osborne said. "We’re using our taxpayer dollars to educate them and then we are exporting them. Let’s incentivize them to stay there. What they are going to return to the economy far exceeds what this is going to cost us."

Joanie Mills from Americans for Prosperity Utah said the bill would unfairly tip a balance that was more appropriately determined by market forces than government-sponsored programs.

"This program picks winners and losers," Mills said. "Give all students an equal chance. You may find that all you need to do to keep talented workers here is keep taxes low … and remove barriers."

Marianne Christensen from the Utah Eagle Forum also took issue with the program.

"I question why we needed to spend $2.5 million to get students to choose jobs that are in high demand and high-paying," Christensen said. "When these students come out of school and have to stay in Utah, the businesses in Utah won’t have to pay them and offer benefits that businesses from outside the state would have to give them. (It) just seems to me this whole bill is tipping … the whole free market."

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Milner noted that Utah has a well-established reputation for being a business-friendly state but is still losing to other tech hubs primarily due to the shallow, local tech talent pool.

"Lower taxes and lower regulation is critically important in our state, but we also have to have the talent," she said. "The companies are locating (to other states), and the individuals are going there because that’s where the talent pool is."

The committee ultimately supported SB104, voting 8-2 to move it to the full House for that body's consideration.