Natalie Gochnour: 5 predictions for Utah in 2015

Utah Land

The New Year brings with it lots of emotions — pessimism for some, optimism for others. And for everybody it brings anticipation. What will 2015 bring?

I took out my crystal ball and came up with five predictions for 2015. Here is my list:

The Utah economy will remain among the strongest in the nation.

Utah’s economy continues to be favorably positioned among states. The hard work of Utah residents and smart investments by business leaders and state and local government will keep paying dividends in 2015. I expect Utah’s job growth rate to continue at about 3 percent, significantly outpacing the nation. Utah’s housing industry will continue to expand and by about midyear, Utah workers will once again benefit from rising real wages.

The Prison Relocation Committee will select a site in Tooele County.

The relocation process is far from over and will take many twists and turns. The Legislature deserves credit for deliberating in a transparent way. When all the dust settles I predict the Legislature will find it untenable to place the prison in what Speaker-elect Greg Hughes has termed “Middle Earth” — rapidly growing, residential communities in Salt Lake and Utah counties. I also don’t think a location north of the Salt Lake City International Airport is wise. The airport is the national and international gateway to our state. We are spending $1.8 billion to rebuild the terminal. This prized economic development asset should not showcase a correctional facility. Tooele County’s proximity, uncongested interstate and undeveloped land will emerge as the most attractive option. Look for the Legislature to sweeten the deal for Tooele County and get this important decision done.

Sen. Mike Lee will have a prominent intra-party challenger.

In political backrooms, people are talking about a recent Dan Jones poll that collected information about the favorability of potential Lee challengers. With Jon Huntsman Sr. calling Lee “an embarrassment” and business leaders frustrated with Lee on mainstream issues important to the economy like immigration reform, watch for someone new to enter the fray. The top names I hear are former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Lane Beattie and businessman and former Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright. I think there is also a chance an aspiring political newcomer will consider running just to build name ID for the next Senate race in 2018 when Sen. Hatch retires. Keep an eye on the current president and CEO of the World Trade Center Utah Derek Miller and former Herbert economic development chief Spencer Eccles. Both are capable leaders.

Utah’s motor fuel tax will change from a per gallon unit tax to a sales tax.

For 17 years, Utah’s transportation fund has been losing purchasing power as the per gallon motor and special fuel tax has failed to keep pace with inflation. The Utah Legislature has plugged this shortfall by earmarking sales tax revenues, but this practice limits budget flexibility and actually creates more congestion and worse air quality because users do not pay the full cost of their travel. Seasoned legislators are ready to solve this problem and view a sales tax on motor and special fuel as a sound alternative. It would be revenue neutral at first, but grow over time and keep pace with the price level (dropping when prices fall and rising when prices increase). This ad valorem tax will create more volatility in the transportation fund, but over time resolve a challenging budget problem.

Ralph Becker will be elected for a third term.

Like any third-term incumbent candidate, Becker will have to campaign against credible challengers, but in the end will be elected to a third term. The rebirth of downtown Salt Lake City, the best-in-class transit system, his commitment to sustainability and his ability to work productively with the Legislature will be enough to carry him to another four years of service as our capital city mayor. His re-election is not only likely, but well deserved.

It will be exciting to see what the future holds. I am anticipating a great year for Utah.

Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.