Turning the page on a new year is a time to look at one’s self and make promises to do things better. Eat less. Exercise more. Tweet less. Read more. Drive less. Subscribe to your local nonprofit newspaper.
For a state, both its formal governing structures and its people, it can also be a time to take stock, give credit where it is due, and resolve to do better in some specific areas. Utah has much to be proud of, in its official governing institutions, its communities and associations and its individuals.
But there are shortcomings that can basically be described as a lack of vision, failures of leadership and activism. We should have more faith in our public institutions. Those institutions need to do more to earn that faith, and the rest of us need to do our part, not just criticizing where our leaders fall short but by being active, speaking out, voting.
Here are some goals for the year 2023. Goals that, to be met, will require action from our leaders and from the rest of us.
Stand for democracy
Unlike many other red states, Utah is not big on voter suppression. Voter registration here is relatively easy, ID requirements are not overly strict and mail-in ballots and early voting combine to make it easy for Utahns to exercise their franchise.
But Election Day does not a democracy make. The Legislature has brazenly gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts to favor the Republican Party. Our attorney general participates in Big Lie fishing expeditions and lawsuits intended to undermine democracy. Our senior U.S. senator was up to his clavicle in the Trumpist plot to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Utahns should demand a stronger opposition from a now moribund Democratic Party and for moderate Republicans to put democracy ahead of party interests.
Manage our growth
Utah’s population is growing rapidly and there is no visible alternative, absent a global economic meltdown or climate disaster, that will reverse that trend. It becomes a matter of managing that growth so that the beauty and energy of our communities are not destroyed. That means such basic infrastructure tasks as transportation — mostly public transit — working in higher-density, walkable, multi-use residential developments and instituting tougher building codes that will help ease the amount of pollution we pour into our air. Getting a handle on the amount of water we use, by learning to measure it better and charge more for it, will be essential.
A clean energy future
Utah has wind, sun and geothermal energy sources that could make it the Saudi Arabia — or, at least, the Qatar — of sustainable energy. Between the shrinking Great Salt Lake, sickening air quality and the looming end to The Greatest Snow on Earth, gains to be made locally by switching from fossil fuels to clean energy are huge and immediate. Neither the production nor the use of fossil fuels in Utah is going away overnight, but acts by our political leaders to deny the inevitability of the transition, when they should be leading it, threaten both our economy and our environment.
Salt Lake City schools
The Salt Lake City School Board was dealt a bad hand, and has played it very poorly. It has suffered through a global pandemic and a declining student population, neither of which was the board’s fault. But to be searching for its fifth superintendent of school in three years constitutes a board failure. Salt Lake City needs a strong, experienced superintendent who will properly serve the board by pushing it to do its job, to look at the big picture rather than meddle in day-to-day business and, most important of all, create a plan to close and consolidate schools to fit the district’s changing demographic patterns.
Safe spaces on campus
Utah is rightly proud of its system of higher education. Our public universities are affordable and accomplished in everything from medicine to law to the arts to athletics. One way they continue to come up short is in creating a safe environment for female students. There are just too many cases of harassment, sexual assault, even murder, victimizing female students that did not receive proper attention until it was too late. Changes in leadership at our public colleges give some hope that the situation will improve. It is past time for that to happen. Otherwise, our public system of higher education will continue to fall short of its potential, as will many of our students.
Stand against racism
Problems documented in the Davis County School District — serious enough to have drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice — are just the most obvious of Utah’s poor race relations. The atmosphere there has been so poisonous to minority children that it led to at least one young girl taking her own life. But discrimination suffered by Black, Hispanic and other Utahns of color is widespread and damaging to all of us. Even people we might have thought were well regarded, such as former Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, felt the weight of it. It is on all of us, political and religious leaders, educators, law enforcement and more, to stand against this flaw in an otherwise friendly, welcoming state.
Stand against inequality
Utahns are more likely than the residents of many states and nations to be upwardly mobile. But there is still far too much of a habit in our public policies that make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Trends in state tax policy favor the rich over the working class and our chronic problem with homelessness is a factor of wealth, and housing costs, trickling up while wages remain stagnant and the education necessary to claim high-income jobs continues to be beyond the reach of too many. It should be the goal of leadership everywhere to bend this curve so decent people are not left out.
Be a public lands state
Utahns are often heard to bemoan the fact that so much of the land within our borders belongs to the federal government. But passing laws and resolutions and filing lawsuits will never change the fact that being a public lands state is a large part of Utah’s glory. Attempts to privatize or “develop” our wild lands, national monuments and wilderness-quality acres are foolish and doomed to failure. Utahns must embrace our status as a public lands state, show our willingness to protect its beauty and, by making common cause with other supporters of public lands, move the federal government to spend the funds necessary to both protect the land and fund the public services it, and we, deserve.
Be excellent to each other.
Happy New Year.