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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The church's cultural influence also spreads far and wide. Most obvious are the state's liquor laws, stemming from the church's prohibition on alcohol. Some of the more arcane ones -- Happy Hour is illegal in Utah -- may have a negative drag on the economy by discouraging tourism. But if you want to buy beer for your river trip in Utah, you need to go to the state-owned liquor store, a bit of socialism in action. In 2011, such sales generated $62 million in profit for the state's General Fund, according to the Utah Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, in addition to millions more in sales and school taxes.

Culture also plays a role in Utah's response to the housing boom and bust, which mirrored the Arizona and Nevada housing markets but to a lesser extreme. "Utah is different than the rest of the nation," says Knold. "We're even different than our neighbors, and I would sink that into the Mormon community. ... What is different is high birth rates. The LDS community promotes big families." Arizona and Nevada, it's now clear, overbuilt housing during the boom, and now that in-migration has slowed and even reversed, there's simply not enough bodies to fill them. Utah grows its population from within, so while overpricing was a problem here, overbuilding was not, leading to a faster housing recovery.

Utah's high birth rate also makes it the youngest state in the nation, with a big, youthful labor force from which the Adobes and Amer Sports can choose new employees. "I know it's not politically correct to say this," says former Sen. Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican, "but Utah's workers show up in the morning, they are not drunk and they speak foreign languages (largely thanks to the Mormon Church's international outreach) and English."

But these youngsters also skew employment figures because if they get laid off or can't find work, they find it easier than middle-aged folks to live with mom or go back to school. As a result, they're not looking for jobs or collecting unemployment, meaning they're not counted in the state's unemployment rate, which remains much lower than the national average.

"There's a cohesive culture out of the LDS that is clearly an element that has tended to dampen conflict -- has sought to find consensus and communitarian values," says Brookings Mountain West's Muro. That has been an important key in getting land-use plans, mass transit and other smart-growth, progressive initiatives done in a state with an often libertarian ideology, says Brenda Case Scheer, dean of the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Utah.

After all, using central planning to accomplish a vision is hardly new in Utah. (See related story, facing page.) When Brigham Young and his followers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they wanted to make it a home, not just a place to raise cattle or dig for gold. This would take slow, deliberate planning as opposed to the free-for-all land rush that consumed much of the rest of the West. They began with a cooperative effort to build an irrigation system that belonged to everyone, and then laid out the towns. "The towns and villages were not established inadvertently or by individual initiative ... they were a result of very definite plans," wrote Hamilton Gardner in Cooperation Among the Mormons in 1917. Throughout Young's reign and on into that of John Taylor, his successor, such central economic and land-use planning continued.

This history has helped Envision Utah, a non-governmental organization, accomplish a sort of regional land-use planning that has mostly avoided the bitter conflicts that such efforts tend to inspire in much of the West. Robert Grow, its founder and current president, bristled when I called Envision Utah "planning" -- he prefers "visioning." Yet what they came up with by gathering input from 20,000 residents certainly looks like a giant comprehensive plan that lays out a roadmap for how the state should grow, without imposing any regulatory teeth.

The relatively homogenous culture, dominated by Republicans and the Mormon Church, reduces polarization, writes Scheer in a soon-to-be-published Brookings paper called "The Utah Model." It helps the state find consensus, even on issues such as mass transit or land-use regulations that are traditionally anathema to conservatives. "While the western ethic of strong property rights values extends to Utah, competing values of community and cooperation permeate at the local level."

To be sure, this "consensus-building" isn't always as sunny as Scheer makes it sound. This summer, a controversy broke out in Provo over LDS Church plans to replace old classroom buildings at its Missionary Training Center with a nine-story high rise. The leader of the opposition was a practicing Mormon, but he and other opponents backed down, reports The Salt Lake Tribune, after Mormon leaders urged them to support the church in its plans. There was an echo of much earlier efforts to get Mormons to toe the church's line. Mormons who failed to patronize the church-sponsored cooperative enterprises back in the 1870s risked excommunication.

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.