Bill would put a closer legislative eye on USTAR
A Utah lawmaker is proposing more oversight of the embattled economic development program USTAR, instead of shutting it down.
"Before ... there were not real definitions for performance and follow-up," said Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, sponsor of a new USTAR bill. "I want to make sure through this legislation we improve."
The Utah Science Technology and Research initiative is designed to leverage university research into businesses and jobs, but an audit in October found the eight-year-old program had inflated revenues by millions of dollars and overstated job numbers by millions. About $334 million in taxpayer money has been spent building facilities, luring scientists with potentially lucrative ideas, and promoting technology commercialization over the years.
Shiozawa's SB62 would add two members of the Utah Legislature to the USTAR Governing Authority, require annual audits and create a sunset provision to reevaluate in five years whether USTAR should continue. The bill is assigned to the Senate Transportation and Public Utilities and Technology Committee.
Greg Bell, former lieutenant governor and the newly appointed president of the Governing Authority, said the sunset provision could be problematic.
"Our concern is, we give these research grants and other incentives to lure researchers to Utah and they're not going to move here in 2017 if you've only got a one-year sunset on the agreement," said Bell. "This is a 30-year investment and it always was and was meant to be."
Annual audits might mean expanding the three-person staff with the addition of a $90,000-a-year position, he said.
"We just don't have the staff to go get all these research teams and find out every nickel, what are they doing," Bell said. There are more than 30 research teams affiliated with USTAR.
Shiozawa wasn't so sure they'd need to make a hire.
"Every other company does audits and funding and doesn't view that as a separate appropriation," he said. Three decades, he added, might be a bit too much of a wait for economic results.
"I don't know if I have the patience for that," he said.
Not everyone agrees USTAR can become an economic development engine. Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, voted against the approximately $20 million appropriation for the program next year and suggested it be moved to the higher education committee so the money wouldn't be tied to creating jobs.
"They have not had, nor are they likely to have, the skill set to make [economic development] happen," he said on the Senate floor last week. "It will never meet those goals they've set; it just won't. We've had nine years of proof."
USTAR officials, though, point to some $258 million in grant funding brought in by affiliated researchers and say they've fulfilled the promise made when it was created.
Executive director Ted McAleer resigned in the months after the audit, as did the former head of the governing authority, Dinesh Patel.
"We've just got to become much more focused on checking and certifying and completing our due diligence," Bell said.