Andy Larsen: How is Utah’s economy doing? Here are three clues.

Income tax revenues are way up, while economic confidence is down, but rebounding.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mallory Bateman, second from right, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute's Utah Population Committee chair, discusses Utah's latest population estimates. The institute is helping to fund a data position at The Salt Lake Tribune.

You may have seen the Salt Lake Tribune article about our plans to hire a full-time data reporter. As a big consumer and frequent producer of data journalism, I’m excited the paper is going to publish even more of that content and that we plan for me to work closely with the new hire. (You can apply here if you think you would be a good fit.)

That we’re able to make this move comes courtesy of a privately funded grant from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. The institute is a reliable compiler of all sorts of data that matters to Utahns, from economics to demographics, along with public policy research. I’ve used its data a number of times over the past few years in writing this column, before the partnership. As our story noted, we will retain full editorial independence with whatever we publish.

In celebration of that, I thought I’d show you a few highlights from an institute publication in January called “Utah Informed: Visual Intellection for 2023.” While the 78-page document contains dozens of graphs across a variety of topics, here are three that fit my criteria of 1) being interesting and 2) dealing with economics in our state.

Economic confidence wanes

I have good news and bad news.

Utah Informed: Visual Intellection for 2023 (https://issuu.com/ecclesschool/docs/utah_informed_2023_final-b)

The Utah and U.S. economic sentiment indexes are calculated by asking a random sampling of people five questions.

To give you an idea, here are the first two:

• “Would you say that you are better off or worse off financially than you were a year ago?”

• “Do you think that a year from now you will be better off financially, or worse off, or just about the same as now?”

The good news is that Utah’s economic sentiment index has been higher than the nation’s as a whole.

The bad news is that both declined in 2022.

There are, however, positive trends in the past two months. Since this graph above was created, the U.S. index rebounded to 64.9 for in January. Utah data hasn’t been calculated yet for that month, but the index did rise from November to December.

That still reflects a pretty low sentiment, though. For example, when people were asked, “Regarding business conditions in Utah as a whole, do you think that during the next 12 months we’ll have good times financially, or bad times?,” 47% of people said bad times, while 38% said good times.

We asked, “About the big things people buy for their homes, such as furniture, a refrigerator, stove, television and things like that. Generally speaking, do you think now is a good or bad time for people to buy major household items?,” 62% of Utahns said it was a bad time; 25% said it was a good time.

What’s going on with Utah’s income tax?

I thought this look at Utah’s tax revenue growth was interesting.

Utah Informed: Visual Intellection for 2023 (https://issuu.com/ecclesschool/docs/utah_informed_2023_final-b)

You can see how Utah has found this $2 billion budget surplus this year, mostly due to a jump in income tax revenue (more from individuals than corporations, but both rose significantly).

Why so big? After all, Utah cut income tax rates last year and the year before. First, you’ll notice the small drop in 2020, before the jump in 2021 and 2022. The tax reporting deadline delay in 2020 caused some taxable income to be reported in 2021 instead. Of course, the pandemic caused actual income to be moved around, too.

And, in the longer term, Utah’s solid economy essentially has resulted in higher dollar totals being taxed: higher wages for people and higher profits for companies have both been in the cards. Sure, there’s higher inflation, and increasing income disparity, but over the aggregate, people are making more money. (See Pages 17, 18, and 30 of the “Utah Informed” book for more on that.)

Meanwhile, property taxes have stayed flat as property values leveled off in 2022 — even if mortgage and rent payments have increased due to rising interest rates.

Wages in hotels and restaurants

On that note of rising incomes:

Utah Informed: Visual Intellection for 2023 (https://issuu.com/ecclesschool/docs/utah_informed_2023_final-b)

There are 3.9% more hotel and restaurant jobs in Utah than there were in 2019, but spending on those jobs has gone up 34.2%.

As the Gardner graphic notes, this put pressure on hotels and restaurants. It’s not easy to run one of those, and we’ve seen shrinking hours of operation and higher restaurant prices as a result.

I have a soft spot in my heart for hotel and restaurant workers. It is not as if, back in 2019, they were always adequately paid; frequently, they were not. And all too frequently, they still aren’t. If economic factors are conspiring for hotel and restaurant workers to have more jobs and higher wages, well, I’m in favor, even if it does cost more for my hotel room or sandwich.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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