SALT LAKE CITY — While Utah's burgeoning tech sector got a few boosts from lawmakers in the just-completed 2019 session, a few unresolved issues, and addressing short-term fixes to long-term issues, remain on the collective to-do list.
A first-of-its-kind grant program aimed at getting more computer science classes into K-12 public schools in Utah earned about $3 million in support, but the funding fell far short of the $7 million request that earned unanimous approval in committee hearings and floor votes. The bill also had 53 bipartisan co-sponsors, the most of any legislative effort in the session. Funding was adjusted downward amid wrangling over budget issues.
Perhaps more significantly, the one-time funding appears to have left some $2 million on the table, since it failed to step up to a $5 million fund-matching challenge made by a group of local tech leaders in January.
Pluralsight co-founder and CEO Aaron Skonnard is one of five Utah tech company founders who each committed up to $1 million in personal funds to match whatever the state put toward building computer science curriculum. Skonnard said he was disappointed with the level of funding, and the fact that it was a one-time committment and not an ongoing appropriation. He noted it will fall short of the fiscal support necessary to reach Gov. Gary Herbert's stated goal of making computer science available to every Utah public school student by 2022.
“HB227 is a very important first step to reach our vision of providing every K-12 student in Utah with the opportunity to learn computer science," Skonnard said in a statement. "While not the outcome we hoped for, the $3.15 million in one-time funding will serve as a downpayment to equip Utah teachers with the skills they need to provide quality computer science education to our students."
“Reaching Gov. Herbert’s goal of having computer science education available to every Utah student by 2022 can only be realized with ongoing, increased funding," he wrote. "I and the Silicon Slopes community remain committed to seeing that goal realized.”
Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, the sponsor of HB227 who is also the executive director of industry group Utah Technology Council, acknowledged he was shooting for better fiscal support.
"The one-time designation was a hard hit," Knotwell said. "But the important thing is, this establishes the grant program … and I'm hopeful that with the matching we can really catalyze this program in the first year."
Knotwell said the task is a challenging one, with computer science mostly missing from the 600 or so Utah elementary schools and only available at a little over half of the state's approximately 320 middle, junior high and high schools.
I another area, more work is needed to create some kind of regulatory framework for new, peer-to-peer car sharing companies.
Car sharing follows a similar peer-to-peer business model that allows homeowners to rent their spaces through the Airbnb network or drivers to transport riders in their own cars through networks run by companies like Lyft or Uber. Car sharing connects vehicle owners who want to make their cars or trucks available for rent via an app-based platform to those in need of a borrowed vehicle.
The companies, in much the same vein as other peer-to-peer innovators, have been locked in a sniping match about which, if any, regulatory and tax requirements should apply to the business models.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said his proposal would have found some parity in terms of taxes and fees that acknowledged both the similarities and differences between tradition rentals and car sharing.
"This is an issue that is being faced by legislatures across the country," Bramble said. "What we didn't do this session is give (car sharing companies) any carve-outs to level the playing field, which we should have done.
"I think what will happen now, until we come up with a solution, is that (car sharing companies in Utah) will find themselves crosswise with compliance."
Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, said she'd successfully brought legacy car rental companies together with peer-to-peer car sharing operators and other regulatory agencies with concerns, like the Salt Lake City International Airport, to arrive at a consensus bill, but her efforts were thwarted near the end of the session by a Senate committee rejection. Coleman said Friday she believed a solution would be reached, but it needed to be one that embraced a free market approach to crafting regulation.
"The belief that it's government's duty to protect legacy companies from disruption by peer-to-peer companies is flawed on so many levels," Coleman said. "I believe there really is space to welcome peer-to-peer and sharing economy businesses … and it was what I was working toward, a reasonable regulatory framework."
Both Coleman and Bramble noted they expect a resolution proposal on the issue to emerge from interim legislative meetings.
Joseph Woodbury, co-founder and CEO of Neighbor, a Utah-based peer-to-peer network company that specializes in storage solutions, said toward the end of the session that Coleman's approach was one he felt best recognized new, innovative business models.
"The marketplace community has gotten some mixed messages this session for sure," Woodbury said. "At, Neighbor.com, we are super grateful for the work our state legislators do, especially those like Rep. Coleman that are working tirelessly to protect marketplaces in HB354."
One proposal that earned plenty of support from lawmakers, but no funding, would have created a program to incentivize the purchase of battery storage systems to compliment clean energy systems, like solar panels.2 comments on this story
Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, told a legislative committee during the session that his SB111 was aimed at driving innovation but, at its heart, was a pro-environment effort.
Supporters of the bill, like Utah Clean Energy, said the systems could help grow a network of small-scale, clean energy power producers that could fundamentally change the current one-way street of corporate energy provision.
Fillmore was hoping to launch the program, which would offer rebates on battery storage systems, with $5 million. The Salt Lake County legislator said he'd likely revisit the issue again.