How the Mormon GOP runs Utah with a collectivist touch

  • Paul Lachine
  • Steeples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rise above the sprawl of Lehi, south of Salt Lake City on Utah's booming Wasatch Front.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • Matt Godfrey, who just finished three terms as mayor of Ogden, Utah, pushed for downtown redevelopment in buildings such as the former American Can Company, now home to Amer Sports.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • City Creek Center in Salt Lake City, a new downtown project developed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • The city-sponsored restoration project on Jefferson Avenue, in Ogden

    Ed Kosmicki
  • The church-built Colonial Court apartment complex in Ogden. The church is also renovating its Ogden temple and working on a $250 million mixed-use development surrounding it.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • Utah's mass transit revolution began before the 2002 Olympics with the federally funded TRAX light rail system. It continues to grow with city, state and federal dollars.

    Ed Kosmicki
  • A young family watches indoor skydiving at the Salomon Center sports adventure complex in Ogden, Utah.

    Ed Kosmicki

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On the north end of The Junction, Deseret Books -- owned by the Mormon Church -- occupies a large retail space. The main window display, featuring a book of the teachings of Joseph Smith, faces a huge construction zone, with a crane towering overhead and workers moving about busily on a skeletal structure. "That's the temple," says Godfrey, stopping the SUV for a moment and looking up reverently. "It's going to be awesome."

In 1999, before Godfrey was elected, the church began construction of the 220-apartment complex, Colonial Court, on church-owned land just west of the temple, marking the first major development in downtown in years. After he was elected, Godfrey met with church officials and urged them to keep building to help bolster the city's own efforts. Now they're doing just that: Ogden's temple, one of 16 in the state and 139 worldwide, is getting a major makeover of its old 1970s space-age sheen. On the surrounding land, the church's real estate arm is also doing a major mixed-use development for an estimated $250 million.

The LDS role in the economy and land-use planning of Utah is often downplayed, even by church officials. They insist, for example, that their development efforts are solely to insulate their temples from urban blight. But the significance of their role can't be denied. The state was originally colonized by Mormons, after all, and today more than 60 percent of Utahns are Mormons, according to church counts. A much greater percentage of Utah politicians belong to the church, so LDS culture inevitably seeps into local and state decision-making.

Then there's the church's corporate presence: It owns Utah's second-biggest newspaper, a book publisher, dozens of radio stations, financial companies, a hotel and a handful of restaurants, not to mention a great deal of land. An HCN analysis of property records found that two of the church's real estate subsidiaries, Property Reserve Inc. and Suburban Land Reserves, together own more than 200 parcels in Salt Lake County alone, valued at more than $340 million. Perhaps more surprising are their out-of-state real estate holdings, which include 150 parcels in Maricopa County, Ariz., home of Phoenix, and almost 2,300 acres in neighboring Pinal County, where the church bought an unbuilt subdivision in 2008 for a whopping $72 million. A Reuters story earlier this year estimated the church's net worth at about $40 billion.

"The Church," wrote Rod Decker, now a reporter for a Utah television station, in Sunstone magazine in 1992, "neither exercises nor seeks control of government, yet it remains not only the most powerful single interest in Utah politics, but the most powerful single interest in the politics of any American state."

Concrete symbols of its influence can be seen in Ogden and, on a much grander scale, in the $2 billion redevelopment by the church of a major portion of downtown Salt Lake City. This spring, City Creek, one of the largest mixed-use developments in the nation, with eight high-rises, 90 retail stores and hundreds of condos, opened for business. Even before that, the church dominated the city's core, with Temple Square and various church-owned enterprises stretching out from there, including the imposing Albert Speer-esque LDS Conference Center. City Creek's development also kept the city's building industry afloat during the housing bust, employing at least 1,500 construction workers.

"(The church) did it during a recession and they didn't bat an eyelash," says Mark Knold, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services. "You could almost go so far as to call them a recession-proof industry." The church also provides a fairly hefty safety net through its welfare program, Deseret Industries -- a network of thrift stores that puts unemployed or disabled people to work -- and major support of the Utah Food Bank; it donated more than $2.5 million to a 2009 capital fundraising campaign. The church won't share its employment figures and the state doesn't track them, so its precise effect on the local economy will always remain a mystery.

Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin says:
Oct 30, 2012 04:14 PM
The LDS is nothing but a gigantic tax dodge, to the detriment of everyone that isn't a mormon bishop. What a bunch of hypocrites and thieves. It is appropriate that the IRS is the single largest employer in Ogden, while at the same time the state gives Goldman Sachs $43 million no strings attached. Perfect poster child for today's GOP.
Jeff Gerke
Jeff Gerke says:
Nov 06, 2012 06:19 PM
I know a lot of LDS people that are not hypocrites or thieves. The type of people that would give the shirt off their back for anyone. Of course there are some bad apples.
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin says:
Nov 07, 2012 11:37 AM
Jeff, I agree that a lot of LDS people are really good and beautiful people, I have spent many years traveling in the Southwest and have met, partied with, and been helped by them. I should have made clear that I was speaking of the bishops, they are the people that have bought shopping malls and ranches and department stores and gas stations and avoided paying taxes by making those businesses part of the church. By paying those taxes to the LDS instead of the elected local, state, and federal governments, they have created a de facto government within the LDS. I think most Americans agree that churches should not be running governments.
Kathleen Hersh
Kathleen Hersh says:
Nov 11, 2012 07:23 PM
I am curious why in the statistical chart on federal spending the editors chose not to include defense spending. Also there is no indication on the charts whether the government jobs chart does or does not include defense jobs.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson says:
Nov 12, 2012 07:47 AM
Kathleen: Excellent questions. I'll do my best to answer:

1. Typically such comparisons as these don't include defense spending. That's because one could argue that since federal defense spending is for the benefit of the entire nation, it's unfair to put it into a particular state's expense "column" (despite the fact that that spending does benefit that state's economy). Obviously, if defense spending were included, each state's "debt" to the federal government would be much greater.

2. Defense jobs are included in the jobs chart. They are included here because a defense job has an impact on the economy that is similar to any other similar-paying job.

I hope this answers your questions.
Kathleen Hersh
Kathleen Hersh says:
Nov 16, 2012 05:38 PM
I guess I am confused as to what the chart shows then. I thought it showed how much money tax payers of a given state send to the federal government and how much money the federal government sends or spends in the state. So if the Defense Department buys planes built in California or spends money to maintain Air Force or Naval bases in Washington that wouldn't show in this chart?
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson says:
Nov 19, 2012 12:03 PM
It's a really good question, and unfortunately I don't have a great answer, although I can tell you why I chose to leave defense spending out.

This type of comparison is going to be messy and inexact no matter how you slice it. That's true if you're trying to figure out whether a particular individual is getting more from the federal government than he/she pays in taxes; it's even more true, I think, when you try to extend it to the state level. But the defense spending thing...

1. The first reason is for consistency's sake. Typically, when this federal revenues vs. spending comparison is done, defense spending is left out. I suspect that this is for the reason I gave before: Because defense spending is for the benefit of the whole nation, it's could be decreed unfair to put defense spending in the "expenses" column for a particular state, even if the spending was done in that state (as opposed to social security, Medicaid, or grants to schools, for example).

2. Of course, this leaves plenty of grey areas like the ones you mention. If a Utah company is paid by the military to build rockets, it's providing jobs to the people in that state, in the same exact way as the IRS is providing jobs to people in that state, for the benefit of the entire nation.

3. This is where it gets messy, and the person who's making a graph like this one has to make somewhat arbitrary decisions about what kind of spending to include, and what kind not to include. The Consolidated Federal Funds Report is set up in a way that makes it easy to pull defense spending, in general, out of the equation. It has two major categories of spending: Defense and Non-Defense. Everything else is a line-item.

So, this is where precedent comes in again: In order to be consistent, I chose to leave out defense, though I had the exact same qualms and questions that you had.

Generally speaking, the overall message remains the same whether you include defense spending or not: Nearly all Western states receive more in federal spending than they collectively pay in taxes. With defense spending added in, things simply become more lopsided for every state. Colorado is the exception to that: Without defense spending, it pays more in taxes than it gets back. With defense spending added in, it, too, has a spending deficit with the feds.

Thanks again for the questions.
Kathleen Hersh
Kathleen Hersh says:
Nov 25, 2012 02:06 PM
Thank you, Jonathan, for your comments. I may have been operating under a misconception or things have changed. Because a number of years ago, I saw numbers that showed that Oregon was a net exporter of federal taxes with the explanation that Oregon has no bases or large military contractors. But that may have been when Oregon's economy was in better shape. And when Oregon wasn't getting timber payments.
I also think that since Defense is something like 60% of Congress's "discretionary" spending that the impact of that money should be noted when we look at the decisions that the western Congressional delegations make.
Jeffrey Mendenhall
Jeffrey Mendenhall says:
Feb 18, 2013 11:13 AM
The LDS heritage of collectivism is an ironic fact of history rarely, if ever, acknowledged by the typically rabid GOP extremists in control of the Utah state legislature. As a former teacher and curriculum writer, I've seen an admirable commitment to education become a hostage to political views so outrageous as to call the word "democracy" a "code word" used by Communists to indoctrinate our children. The Alpine school district went so far as to remove this word from their century-old district charter! The consequence of such utter nonsense is that Utah has the lowest per pupil spending in the US, in part due to our ridiculously high birth rate, lower even than Mississippi. Stupid, selfish, and demonstrably wrong for continued investment into the state (dumbing down a previously well-educated workforce). If governing for the "common good" as Jefferson called it is beyond the ideologues on Capitol Hill in SLC, then simple, basic dollars and cents must motivate semi-enlightened decision-making. Brother Brigham would hate this city, and this state today.