Local legislators look to promote rural development
Record state surplus has leaders mulling income, sales tax cuts
By James Tilson
SALT LAKE CITY—The Utah Legislature has begun its 2019 session, and local representatives are focusing on legislation to benefit Sanpete and other rural counties.
Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green; and Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield; and Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, returned to Salt Lake City on Monday.
In interviews, they say most of their efforts will center on ways to create economic opportunity for rural Utah, although statewide issues will also garner a lot of their attention.
Rep. Owens said his primary legislative effort will aim at reforming what are known as Regents Scholarships.
Owens says the scholarship were created to give students the incentive to take college- level courses in high school. However, according to Owens, 90 percent of recipients are stacking the awards along with other scholarships, and 40 percent of the awards are going to private institutions.
He wants to change the program so the awards go to the students who need them most. Such a change will tend to benefit rural students.
Owens says more efforts should be made to assist counties impacted by intergenerational poverty, and changing the scholarships would help those locations. He also wants the program opened up to technical schools and returning adult students.
Owens believes he has the support of the Board of Regents, but says, “This is a big change and will get some blow back.”
Albrecht’s main legislative goal will be to amend a rural economic development bill passed last year. The bill gives incentives to businesses to hire online employees in rural parts of the state. Albrecht wants to increase the limit on rebates to employers from $25,000 to $250,000. He says there was a business that wanted to hire 30 employees under the program, but could only get financial incentives to hire four employees.
Albrecht says his bill is a companion bill to the Rural Online Initiative, which makes funds available to individuals to train for online jobs and to businesses to hire online employees. And this year, there will be a “third leg” to those two bills, he says. A new bill will establish grant funds for municipalities, especially in rural areas, to take vacant buildings and convert them to online employment “hubs.”
The bill to establish employment hubs is only in draft form, Albrecht says, and he and other legislators are still working on the details. However, Albrecht’s goal is to appropriate $2 million for the Online Initiative Program.
The statewide issues that will be at the center of our representatives’ focus will be tax reform growing out of the state’s $1 billion surplus, possible revision of Proposition 3 (Medicaid expansion) and legislation aimed at providing more funding for school suicide prevention.
Owens related how on the first day of the session, when Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, the new speaker of the House, told representatives they needed to pass a $225 million tax rebate to take advantage of the surplus, he got a standing ovation.
On the other hand, Owens described the passage of Proposition 3 as “a big tax increase.” The proposition approved a sales tax increase to cover the state’s cost of expanding Medicaid.
Owens explained under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid is available for those who make up to 138 percent of the poverty level if the state goes along. Right now, Utah provides Medicaid for those for up to 100 percent of the poverty level.
Sen. Okerlund was not available to be interviewed for this story.