Utah Foundation provides balanced, relevant information to policy makers, the press and the public
Oct 14, 2019 16h14
By Jennifer J Johnson
By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]
Independent. Nonprofit. Nonpartisan.
In these times of divisive tumult—across the country and across the county—those seem to be music to the ears.
Utah Foundation has been providing this policy-research music to Utah for nearly 75 years. The organization, goaled with producing objective, thorough, well-reasoned research, celebrates its 75th birthday this next year. The birthday comes one year after another milestone for the organization: Contributing to helping the Utah Legislature’s 2019 session, wherein the most bills were passed than any other session—and far surpassed, to the tune of 10% increase above any previous year’s legislative session.
The history behind Utah Foundation
Utah Foundation was founded in 1945 by business and civic leaders. According to UF Executive Director Peter Reichard, Utah’s establishing the organization mirrors what was established by other organizations across the county.
The key to the organization’s unique offering, said Reichard, is its “solutions-oriented perspective” and being “focused on the problems facing communities, but doing it in a completely nonpartisan manner, with no underlying ideology or political perspective.”
Nonpartisan, but driven by the political cycle
2020 is not only the organization’s 75th birthday, but the year it conducts its “Utah Priorities Survey.” UF conducts this survey every four years, in conjunction with the gubernatorial race.
What Reichard calls the “in-between years” are spent crafting a research agenda.
For example, in 2016 the policy-research organization focused on the cost of healthcare as its defining scope of research. “The public said this was the thing that we cared about most,” he said.
Reichard explained that UF’s research lead to a variety of reports that ran from 2017 through 2018. “Such an emotional and polarizing issue,” he said. UF’s research took a look at healthcare through the lens of delivery costs, insurance aspects, comparisons with other states, and the political hot button—the Medicaid issue.
Poor air quality, suicide in the current research crosshairs
While UF is still driving the healthcare focus, Reichard indicated that air quality is a close second, in terms of priorities. The “what-if” kind of outlook reminds one a bit of Envision Utah, as Reichard indicated the group is taking a scenarios-based look at issues such as alternate-energy vehicles and the impact of incentives. The scenarios, ultimately, ask the question: “What would that environment look like?”
News of the preponderance of teen suicides in Herriman rocked not just local but national news in 2017-2018. UF has had the issue in its priorities, having released, in October, a report looking at mental health as a rural problem facing the state. Reichard’s team took a look at the state’s comparatively low number of mental-health professionals and the lack of those professionals in rural communities. Possible policy solutions to consider include expanding “the pipeline of mental health professionals,” he noted, as well as tapping the idea of “tele-health” options for rural communities.
“K-12 suicide has a more captivated audience,” explained Reichard, noting the state’s need to more significantly fund mental health needs in schools, but also the less publicized, very real concerns with adult suicide. Utah Foundation’s policy focus in this area is supported by the recent news that Utah has the fifth-highest suicide rate in the country. Further evidence of this concern is City Journals’ recent interview with Salt Lake County Public Health, where the executive director indicated reducing adult suicide as a key initiative for the nationally decorated public health agency.
“A lot more research needs to be done,” Reichard said. “Suicide is not well understood.” Nor is the effectiveness of intervention methods, he observed. Reichard said UF will prioritize an investment in research to help policy makers understand how to best allocate budget dollars “to make sure dollars are going to effective programs.”
Research, but not advocacy—when it rains, it pours
Here, Reichard underscored that Utah Foundation neither advocates nor lobbies policy direction, but rather, is firmly focused on being an unbiased, but loud oracle—foreseeing the future and informing relevant audiences who are in the position to not just advocate and lobby, but actually formulate and then enforce policy.
The 2019 Utah Legislative session was like its spring rainfall—stunningly record-breaking. The Utah Legislature passed a record number of bills, surpassing its next-closest bill-passing year by what Reichard estimated to be 10%. “Cranking them out” is how he describes the legislators’ efforts. “It was something else.”
While Reichard does not say so, the preponderance of informed legislation is a success marker for UF. “We meet throughout the year with legislators and local officials as well,” he said, with the goal being to “make sure [legislative pursuits] stay relevant.”
For legislators, this is a welcome thing.
“Since we’re not lobbyists. We’re not up there, trying to tell legislators what to do,” Reichard said. However, the presence is extremely influential, as Utah Foundation makes presentations to committee meetings and is a strong source of information to not just policy makers, but to the press and the public.
Dangers of legislating alone—on state and municipal levels
Utah Foundation is seeking to not just influence policy on the state level, but to also help aid Utah communities.
This direction is evident by UF’s inclusion of numerous municipalities on its board. (Here in Salt Lake County, Sandy, South Jordan and West Valley City all have representation on the Utah Foundation Board of Trustees, as does the Granite School District.)
UF has been focused on the value of and the impact of Utah’s “social capital” on a statewide level. However, this past spring, Reichard invited Harvard policy-theorist and author Robert Putnam as the keynote for its spring conference. Putnam’s classic, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” probes this issue of social capital—or the networks of relationships among people, enabling society to function effectively.
“To the extent that you have weak community structure, you have people who become more dependent on government to fill the void. Things are incredibly interconnected,” Reichard said, likely thinking of more projects to come, hopefully benefitting Utah municipalities as well as the whole state.