Senators took a first step Wednesday toward bringing far more accountability and oversight to an under-fire state program designed to turn high-tech university research into new jobs and businesses.
USTAR — the $334 million Utah Science Technology and Research initiative — was slammed in a legislative audit last year for vastly exaggerating the number of jobs it has created and how much money it has brought to Utah’s economy.
Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, ordered that critical audit, and drafted SB62 to fix many of the problems it identified about lack of oversight, accountability and measurable goals. The Senate Transportation, Public Utilities and Technology Committee passed it unanimously Wednesday, and sent it to the full Senate.
The bill will require what Shiozawa called exhaustive annual reports looking at each USTAR research team and the agency’s overall operation. It will set clearer lines of responsibility and more oversight by its board, and better job-performance goals. It also pushes the agency to become self-funding, and eliminate state subsidies.
“The goal is to have this a self-funding, profitable program,” Shiozawa said.
“We’ve taken our whooping,” said new USTAR chairman Greg Bell, the former lieutenant governor, about the audit and proposed changes. He said while the bill “is difficult and hard to swallow … we’ve taken the bit in our mouth and are going to perform.”
Bell added, “We’re going to run this program under complete due-diligence and complete audit” to ensure it is living up to its original goals. He said newly formed research teams will also be told they will be expected to be self-funding within five years, and should be creating jobs from their research by that time.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, said he see the bill as a rebirth for the program. “We had some high expectation created seven years ago” when the program began, he said. “I think those were not realized. I am hoping now with the new expectations that we have established that they will be realized.”
Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, praised the bill and said it will maintain and improve USTAR as valuable way to bring more jobs and high-tech research to the state, which he said helps encourage some companies to relocate to Utah.
“It’s really important that we maintain this program. The only way we can maintain this program is by generating credibility with it,” he said.