Why invest in Utah's future?
In the wake of decades of tax-cutting, unmet needs are piling up and becoming more urgent.
We've identified over $5 billion in unmet needs in areas impacting all Utahns:
Housing affordability and homelessness
Mental health and substance abuse
Left behind workers and their families
Sexual and domestic violence
Racial equity, diversity, and inclusion
Isn't Utah doing well enough in educating our children?
There is little doubt that Utah does more with less better than probably any other state. We also set the pace for the nation on school funding equalization. But because our overall level of funding per pupil is among the nation's lowest (in 49th place among the 50 states), we suffer from high teacher attrition and large class sizes that have stood as obstacles to addressing the challenges of an increasingly diverse student population.
High school graduation rates remain at or behind national averages for nearly all racial and ethnic categories:
2019 high school graduation rates:
Moreover, Utah experiences persistent gaps between different groups of students:
Larger high school graduation rate gaps than nationally for Whites vs Latinos and haves vs have-nots.
Closing or reducing those gaps will take up-front investments that we currently lack the resources to make, following decades of tax cutting, even though those investments would reap powerful benefits for generations to come.
Are Utah's taxes high or low?
No one loves paying taxes, but the data show that they are lower now than they've been in half a century, relative to our incomes. Here is a chart from the Utah State Tax Commission:
Don't we have to keep cutting taxes to stay competitive with other states?
The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation already ranks Utah as having one of the most competitive tax climates for business of any state. Forbes ranks us consistently at or near the top of their rankings of the best states for business.
Over the last 20 years, Utah has gone from being a low-wage state -- ranked #41 for median hourly wage in 2004 -- to being a middle wage state, ranked #29 in 2020. This is impressive progress that every Utahn should be proud of, and a credit to the success of our economic development efforts, especially in attracting and growing high-wage high-tech jobs.
But should we now rest on our laurels and be satisfied with being 29th? Or can we now set our sights even higher and follow in the footsteps of states like Colorado and Minnesota that have become high-wage states?
How did they do it? What lessons can we learn from high-wage states? One key factor in their success is higher education attainment -- which is currently Utah's Achilles' heel.
Utah's older generations outpaced their peers nationally in gaining Bachelor's degrees and above. But with each successive generation, we have been gradually losing our lead, and among our Millennial generation, we have actually fallen behind the progress of the nation as a whole:
Turning this trend around so that Utah can regain the lead we once had will take upfront investments at every stage in the pipeline, from pre-K to high school graduation to college completion. But the benefit will be enjoyed by our children, our grandchildren, and their grandchildren for many generations to come.
Source: Census Annual Survey of School System Finances https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/school-finances.html as reported in "Utah Children's Budget Report 2021" and page 16 in the full pdf report.
The steep decline in Utah's education funding effort in recent decades raises the question of whether the current generation of Utahns is doing our part, as earlier generations did, to set aside sufficient resources every year to invest in our children and the foundations of their prosperity. Or are we giving in too easily and too often to the "tax cut temptation"?
One of the greatest thinkers Utah ever produced, business guru Clayton M. Christensen, who passed away in 2020, wrote a decade ago in the Harvard Business Review, “If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification.”
Are the dangers of short-term thinking any less when it comes to government policy?
Past generations of Utahns established a record of making sacrifices for the long-term betterment of our state. What about us today? Are we willing to live up to their example and make the upfront investments in our children that will redound to Utah’s long-term benefit?
Clayton Christensen in 2013