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

Page 4

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.

High Country News Classifieds