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

"Our object is to labor for the benefit of the whole ..."

--Brigham Young, 1873

A throng of cars floats down Interstate 15 on an end-of-summer morning, the rising sun wreathed in the orange gauze of distant wildfire smoke. In Lehi, a suburb sandwiched between Salt Lake City and Provo, a massive steel-and-glass shape juts out from the hillside over the interstate, sporting a huge banner that reads "Adobe." It's the 280,000-square-foot first phase of the software giant's new campus, which will house more than 1,000 employees, adding to the 600 already in Utah. Behind the building, rows of new houses are marching up the hillside, watched over by the gleaming white steeples of Mormon meeting houses. A flock of paragliders hangs in the hazy air above the subdivision.

It's a perfect snapshot of Utah's economy, which by nearly all measures is doing quite well. The state has more manufacturing than its neighbors, greater economic diversity, and in August the unemployment rate was 5.8 percent, tied with Wyoming for lowest in the West (Nevada was highest with 12.1). Big businesses like Adobe and Goldman Sachs are expanding their presence here. A lower percentage of people live in poverty in Utah than in most of the nation, and Utah consistently has the best Gini Index score, meaning the wealth is more evenly distributed. In the past year alone, at least a half-dozen media outlets have ranked Utah among the top five places to live or do business, and the Brookings Institution's Metro Monitor consistently gives Ogden, Salt Lake City and Provo top scores in recovery from the recession.

This success has observers asking: What's Utah's secret sauce? Republican Gov. Gary Herbert says that the main ingredient is a laissez-faire, no-government-interference, free-market approach. "This is no surprise to Utah, again confirming that reasonable regulation, low taxes and an unparalleled workforce are the best components to promote economic growth," Herbert told The Salt Lake Tribune in August, after CNBC chose his state as number two for business in the nation. "We achieve this growth by creating the best conditions for the free market to do what it does best."

In other words, Utah -- one of the politically reddest states -- provides an ideal atmosphere for the "We Built It" slogan that the Republican Party has adopted this campaign season. Utah's relatively low corporate tax rate (5 percent) and the Herbert administration's recent effort to streamline regulations have also attracted businesses fleeing states with higher taxes and more onerous rules.

But look a little more closely at Lehi, and a more complex recipe emerges. Adobe may, indeed, have been lured here by low taxes, but $40 million in incentives from the state government, plus millions more in local incentives, also helped. So did the state-funded effort to turn its universities into high-tech incubators of sorts and the taxpayer-funded commuter rail that will be extended to near the company's campus later this year. Adobe employees will overlook the whirling industrial sculpture of state-incentivized wind turbines, along with an even bigger campus of sorts across the valley, a 1 million-square-foot, $2 billion National Security Agency "spy center" funded by federal taxpayers.

We Built It? Sure, as long as the "We" includes a healthy dose of all levels of government involvement, and impressive influence from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, building on a long history of strong centralized planning and rebellion against unfettered capitalism and the Western frontier individualist ethos. "To the very desirable assets of the Western landscape, they've added good policy," says Mark Muro, co-director of the Brookings Mountain West think tank. "It's not a big government, but they're doing smart things. It's a planning-oriented, smart, lean government."

High Country News Classifieds