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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For the half-century after they first settled in Utah, the Mormons were pummeled by oppressive legislation from a U.S. Congress that not only disliked polygamy (a practice the church officially abandoned in the early 1900s), but also resented the religion's collectivist economic ways, which threatened the era's captains of industry. Utah's never really gotten over it. This year, the state Legislature, which is 77 percent Republican, showed its disdain by passing a bill trying to "take back" federally managed land. While the move is seen as largely symbolic, it still rankles those who know how dependent the state is on the federal government. "Excuse me," says Knold, the state economist, in reference to the take-back-the-land bill, "do you realize how big that is in our economy?"

Really big. Federal agencies employ some 36,000 people across the state, the most per capita in the West along with New Mexico and Montana, and those workers get higher wages, on average, than those in most every other industry in Utah. The state received a substantial chunk of American Recovery Act stimulus funds, and Utahns collectively get more revenue from the feds than they pay in taxes, as is the case with most Western states. Communities near the gateways of Utah's national parks would dry up and blow away without the 6 million visits per year to the parks, and having all that federal land -- i.e. open space -- near the urban Wasatch Front boosts "quality of life," that elusive but essential ingredient for a healthy economy.

In Ogden, the federal government provides a cornerstone for the city's downtown revitalization, and its economy as a whole. Since the 1950s, the Internal Revenue Service has had a regional headquarters in Ogden, with thousands of employees. But when Godfrey got into office, the IRS was preparing to move further out into suburbia.

Godfrey fought back. After asking nicely, then invoking administrative orders mandating that the IRS move to downtown historic buildings if feasible, Godfrey finally threatened to take the agency to court. "It got ugly," says Godfrey. Finally, the IRS agreed to become "urban pioneers" with a $20 million project that combined renovation of old structures with construction of new ones. The IRS brought more than 1,000 jobs into downtown Ogden. Today, it remains Ogden's biggest employer, with more than 6,000 workers during peak season, and the impact of the downtown offices (which continue to expand) dwarfs that of any of the city's other redevelopment initiatives.

Those aren't the only federal dollars here. The roar of military jets is common, thanks to Hill Air Force Base just south of Ogden and its more than 10,000 employees. The U.S. Forest Service's Intermountain Region office, based in Ogden, provides more than 200 jobs. Just this summer, the feds gave $1 million to support a mobile phone and tablet app development lab in downtown. And the Ogden River restoration project was bolstered by $1 million in stimulus funds, a fraction of the $100 million the county has received in American Recovery Act funds since 2009.

Federal dollars are also apparent in Utah's public transportation system. In Tea Party-dominated states, governors have refused to accept high-speed rail funding from the feds, and libertarian conspiracy theorists say multimodal transport is one of the land-use planning methods employed by Agenda 21 folks to turn sovereignty over to the United Nations. In a 2011 column, conservative pundit George Will wrote that progressives love trains because it furthers "their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism."

But over the last decade or so, Utah has been able to wage a mass transit revolution with support from the public and a host of local leaders, including Godfrey. The expansion began prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics, when Salt Lake built its TRAX light rail system using federal dollars brought in with the help of then-Sen. Bennett, who ultimately lost his office to the Tea Party revolution. The TRAX system has grown rapidly since, funded in large part by a sales tax increase for which Utahns voted, along with city, state and federal dollars. Then, in 2008, the $600 million FrontRunner line from Salt Lake City to Ogden was completed, with some 80 percent paid for by grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In an op-ed marveling at the strides Utah has made on the transit front, Janet Kavinoky, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted that in her native Wyoming, "people drive; transit is for big city folks and liberals." However, "Folks in the Salt Lake City metro area think differently than the rural Westerners I remember from my childhood. ... They respond to demands of businesses that want their employees to have multiple ways to get to work, and want to locate in a place with a good quality of life."

Indeed, Utah's long-term transit plans would make the George Wills of the world blanch. They include more public transit, not only for the Wasatch Front, but even in places like St. George, in Utah's Dixie. In the nearer-term, the FrontRunner will soon be extended south to Provo, and the TRAX system will reach out to the Salt Lake City airport. Land-use planners, spurred by the Envision Utah process, are urging cities to develop regulations and zoning that would cluster growth around transit stops. (Interestingly, the approach seems to mirror that of Mitt Romney's when he was governor of Massachusetts. In 2005, he said: "By targeting development to areas where there is already infrastructure in place, not only can we revitalize our older communities, but we can also curb sprawl as well.") It's an urbanist view, to be sure, and one that many conservatives would consider a volley in the so-called War on Suburbia, but it's also an echo from the Mormon Church's central-planning past.

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