SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal aimed at dissolving a long-running state program created to bolster economic growth through support of research-intensive startups is sailing through the Senate while the sponsor of a competing bill conceded defeat.
Sen. Scott Sandall's SB212, aimed at "dismantling" the Utah Science, Technology and Research initiative launched over a decade ago, found unanimous support from the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee following a hearing Friday morning. The Tremonton Republican said no succinct proposals to revamp USTAR came to light during months of interim work last year by legislators, who were evaluating the agency's effectiveness as an economic development strategy. Sandall used an agricultural metaphor to note the time had come to take a pause and rethink best approaches to bolstering the state's biotech, life science and so-called "deep-tech" industries.
"We hope to take this field and leave it fallow for a time and see if we can decide what seeds we should plant back into that field," Sandall told committee members.
In the morning, the committee recommended the bill and moved it to the Senate floor for debate. Later Friday afternoon, the full Senate gave it unanimous preliminary approval on the second reading. A third yea vote will send it to the House.
While numerous Utah business and economic experts noted a third-party assessment of USTAR completed last year lauded the agency for its efficiencies and successes and encouraged state leaders to keep the effort alive, some believe the momentum to eliminate USTAR was too great to overcome.
Kelvyn Cullimore, biotech entrepreneur, former Cottonwood Heights mayor and executive director of life science/biotech trade group BioUtah, told the Deseret News ahead of Friday's hearing that he believes legislators are still supportive of supporting deep-tech industries, just under a different guise.
"This bill should not be interpreted as a lack of support among legislators for biotech," Cullimore said. "More a dissatisfaction with a methodology rather than the mission.
"While I do believe USTAR has shown significant improvement in the last year, and a model that was working better, I think the momentum was already in place to make a change."2 comments on this story
Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, the sponsor of competing HB264 that proposes to keep USTAR, its governing board and current programming essentially intact, also noted momentum among legislators was on the side of eliminating the agency. HB264 has been languishing in the House Rules Committee since Feb. 5 and has yet to be assigned to a House committee for a hearing.
"The Senate has been clear to me that my bill will fail there and their plan (SB212) will prevail, as it already has tremendous momentum," Winder wrote in a text to the Deseret News. "I'm going to back off of my original direction with HB264 and rework it into a (Governor's Office of Economic Development) cleanup bill."