For the People: Utah’s New Legislative Leaders Say Planning Ahead is Key to Managing the State’s Rapid Growth

BY KRISTY KUHN AND AMANDA COVINGTON PHOTOS BY MARK HEYWOOD

The State of Utah is doing remarkably well right now. It’s among the nation’s leaders in terms of both population growth and economic success. That growth brings a lot of positives to the state, but it also brings a unique set of challenges for lawmakers, who must find ways to leverage current growth against the future needs of the state. As the newly elected leaders of the Utah State Legislature, Sen. Stuart Adams and Rep. Brad Wilson are keenly aware of these challenges, and they both agree: planning ahead is the key to Utah’s ongoing prosperity and continued quality of life.

J. Stuart Adams:
Working to Get It Right

Sen. Stuart Adams’ father instilled in him a love of country and encouraged him to run for office. Today, this fifth-generation Layton resident credits a deep sense of patriotism, his family heritage, and a focus on his grandchildren’s future as his motivation to serve as Utah’s newest senate president.

  • “It’s a little strange to have four generations in the same city ahead of you, and all of my grandkids live within 20 minutes of my home,” Adams said. “So, I’ve been the benefactor of generations that have come before. They have given me so much. I’ve got a responsibility to my kids, and to those around me, to make sure Utah gets it right — and that’s what drives me.”

    Planning for Smart Growth
    As he looks to the future, Adams’ vision includes policies that support Utah’s current and expected growth. He stresses the need to plan for infrastructure, such as roads, sewer and water. He also says we need to consider the impacts on air quality.

    “Infrastructure has got to be a top priority. As we grow, we want to grow smartly. We want to make sure people have choices as to how they live and interact, but if we can somehow be smarter about how we allow growth patterns to happen, we’ll reduce the impact on the infrastructure.”

    The solution he says, lies in collaborating with cities and counties for innovative land-use planning approaches.

    “Having served on a city council, I know the importance of local control. Those city councils and mayors are duly elected, and we need to give them the tools and resources they need to make good decisions and help them see the bigger state and local vision. However it fits best, we have to partner with them, or we aren’t going to have the resources as a state to try and stay ahead of this.”

    Utah’s economy and workforce needs are also growing. Adams wants to better support the state’s diverse workforce with an outcome-based education system. “We need to maintain ourselves as the best-managed state in the nation. But in order to do that, we need to continue to have a focus on education funding.”

    Employers in a variety of industries across the state are telling lawmakers of their need for well-trained employees, and “it doesn’t matter what field,” Adams said. “We spend a lot of money on different programs, but probably the best thing we can do is have an outcome-based education system, trying to align workforce development.”

    The Value of Fiscal Prudence
    The economy is currently thriving, but Adams warns, “We have a cyclical environment.” He explains that when the economy is healthy, Utahns buy more expensive items, like cars and furniture. “Those carry a lot of sales tax. Because of that, our tax revenue goes up very, very fast.”

    Across the nation, however, interest rates are beginning to rise. “We see an affordability index problem: interest rates going up, and the cost of housing going up. At some point in time, it will tip,” Adams said. “As it tips, people quit buying furniture and cars as fast as they started. The downhill slope on the other side is like [that of ] a roller coaster.”

    Adams says now is the time to prepare to ride the peaks and valleys. “One of the things we hope to do this year … we ought to spend some of that ongoing revenue on one-time expenses. Then, when the economy turns down, we’ll have that ongoing revenue to fill the gap on commitments we’ve made

  • Looking toward the future, Sen. Stuart Adams stresses that as Utah continues its rapid growth, the state needs to make infrastructure and the impacts on air quality a top priority.

    for ongoing expenses, such as salaries and other things.”

    Utah’s senate president knows change is certain and, as such, he values fiscal prudence. Self-employment taught him how to consistently make payroll and handle expenses. “Spending less than you make is the best thing [my career] has taught me. As a state, that’s probably the most important thing you can do.”

    Adams knows that relationships and people are everything. “You don’t do anything alone. You have to have others to help you,” he says.

    Accepting a Helping Hand
    Even though he’s been elected to serve as the leader of the senate, Adams says he can’t push new policies alone. His inspiration comes from those he serves, and from those who serve with him.

    “You don’t do anything alone. You have to have others help you. Relationships and people are everything. No matter how good my ideas are, once it runs through this refining process of 103 other legislators, it becomes better. The process is phenomenal.”

    Adams plans to partner with other lawmakers to better position Utah for growth, for economic cycles and for an improved quality of life.

    He knows why he is serving, and how he wants to lead Utah’s Senate.

I’m here to help those future generations, to make sure that Utah, for the next five generations, is just as prosperous, and just as good a spot to live in as it was for the previous generations.”

— J. Stuart Adams, Utah’s Senate President

Brad Wilson:
Serving for the Right Reasons

In his free time, Utah’s newly elected speaker of the house enjoys boating at Bear Lake with his family. The truth is: he doesn’t have a lot of free time these days, but he feels that’s simply part of the deal for Utah lawmakers, who perform an act of service by participating in one of the last true citizen- legislatures — they “sacrifice a great deal,” but it’s worth it.

  • “I love this body, and I love this organization and the work we do here,” said Rep. Brad Wilson.

    That body is the Utah State House of Representatives, and Wilson ran for his position as speaker because he’s been in elected leadership longer than anyone presently serving — that, and because “there’s a lot of important work to do.” He says he’s proud of our state’s accomplishments and wants to continue to help Utah lead in terms of quality of life and economic prosperity.

    Doing What We Do Best
    In his new role, he wants to put his experience and ideas to work for the state, changing our paradigms to improve our future. And, he’s talking about growth. “We have got to ensure that we keep the quality of life we have for the people that live here now but make opportunities for the folks that come into the state,” Wilson said.

    Wilson identifies infrastructure maintenance and improvement, water, air quality, education and workforce training, and housing availability and affordability as some of the key challenges facing a growing Utah.

    “First and foremost, we need to continue to do all the things we do well,” Wilson said. “While increasing our focus on taking the long view, and thinking about planning, we are not doing enough of that work. In a state that’s changing faster than almost any other state in the country, stepping back and looking at where we are, and where we want to go, and how those two paths might diverge, is a really important part of this process.”

    Wilson believes the reason Utah is the “best-run state in the county” is because it has one of the last citizen-run legislatures in the country. He says the legislators come in and do the people’s work, then they go back to their real jobs for the remaining 10 months of the year — and they live with the work they have done.

    “People are here for the right reason. The average tenure in the House is probably around five years. People truly do this as an act of service and, we’re lucky to have them.”

  • Rep. Brad Wilson identifies infrastructure maintenance and improvement, water, air quality, education and workforce training, and housing availability and affordability as some of the key challenges facing a growing Utah.

    Wilson ran for House Speaker because he has been in elected leadership longer than anyone presently serving in the legislature and also “there’s a lot of important work to do.” He says he’s proud of Utah’s accomplishments and wants to continue to help lead in terms of quality of life and economic prosperity.

Considering All Points of View
He credits former House Speakers Becky Lockhart and Greg Hughes, who had different leadership styles, for teaching him that setting policy is the most important role for a legislator. “Both of them have been great role models and mentors to me up here, as well as many other colleagues.”

His goal is to build upon the diverse points of view from his peers, involve local governments and understand the short- and long-term costs to policies that address growth.

“We need to have a more comprehensive plan around water infrastructure,” Wilson said. “We need to look at all the different options we have around air quality and how we manage that. This is so important. People don’t understand that our air quality is getting better and better every year. But, it needs to keep getting better. As we grow, we need to make sure we’re very thoughtful and deliberate about that.”

He notes that we also need to look at how we grow our cities and towns in a way that creates affordable housing opportunities for the next generation. “I believe that, in many ways, we’re failing the next generation in terms of how we’re growing in relationship to housing affordability. We are going to become like southern California, in terms of having unaffordable housing, unless we start to do some things radically different.”

Aligning Work and School
According to Wilson, infrastructure isn’t the only area where a different approach is necessary. He says the biggest risk to economic prosperity is aligning Utah’s workforce development needs with its educational system.

I think it’s time we have a really unique and interesting conversation about how we change education in the state. We have a model that’s built off an economy we no longer live in and we’ve got to talk about that: we’ve got to deliver and deploy education in a different way.”

— Brad Wilson, Utah’s Speaker of the House

Wilson’s decision-making model involves filtering issues through “the biggest levers that are going to make the biggest difference.” He and his fellow legislators are currently discussing which issues to tackle first. Wilson is optimistic the state’s citizen legislature can get it right. He is keen on empowering people and trusting them to do great work. And, he says he has the support of his caucus to lead.

In the end, he sees these big levers, in conjunction with discovering different approaches to Utah’s challenges, as answering the call to the “sacred responsibilities or trust the citizens of Utah have given us to manage.”

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