Lt. Gov. Greg Bell discusses illegals, housing and gasoline prices

Mar 26 2012 - 6:14pm

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I enjoyed hearing Lt. Gov. Greg Bell talk last week to a Bank of Utah gathering about Utah's improving economy. Because there's always more in such a talk than can fit into a news story, I thought I'd ponder a few leftovers:

* Someone asked if illegal immigration is costing Utah taxpayers a lot of money for schools. It is illegal for schools to ask for a child's documentation, Bell said, adding that illegals are only about 4 percent of Utah's population.

Then, unasked, Bell made an interesting observation. He said he asked a South Weber employer who hires day laborers if illegals are taking jobs from Americans.

"And he said, in South Weber, at 7 a.m., there's not a single white face in the crowd."

Bell said employers hiring for low-skill, low-paying jobs elsewhere have the same experience. Utah's undocumented population has dropped to 50,000 in the last couple of years "because they go where the jobs are."

This tells me Utah will see more illegals again as the economy improves and lower-rung jobs that Utahns don't want open up.

The solution is to let workers without documents come to Utah legally, like what is called for in the Utah Compact. How likely is that in the current "what part of illegal don't you understand" climate?

Not very.

* It's no secret that housing dragged the world's economy down five years ago, and we're still recovering. Bell said Utah housing starts hit 28,285 in 2005, bottomed out at 8,756 last year and are projected to hit 13,000 in 2013.

"These cycles are so hard on our economy," he said. "It's like stuffing yourself for two weeks and starving for two weeks."

I was hoping he'd make a pitch for better regulation of home lending practices. During the boom years, banks and mortgage brokers would give anyone with a pulse a housing loan, but Bell just said it's up to banks to keep that from happening again.

But it was banks' total failure to regulate themselves last time that caused the mess. The few controls passed by the Obama administration are being criticized as evil job-killing federal regulation.

I know several local bankers. They're very honest people. I trust them with my money.

The nation's financial industry is another matter. If there's not enough regulation to prevent another housing bubble, you can bet there will be one.

* Bell said Utahns are concerned about high gasoline prices and high taxes for education. He made a strong pitch that if Utah can acquire the federal lands in the state, Utah can get rich by grinding up massive chunks of those lands for oil shale and tar sands.

That, he said, will let Utah adequately fund education without raising taxes.

It's too bad he isn't using gasoline prices as a learning opportunity.

For Utah to capitalize on oil shale and tar sands, the prices of oil and gasoline have to stay high. In the case of oil shale, nobody knows how high, because nobody has figured out how to produce that oil and make money.

High oil prices mean Utah could collect lease payments and royalties on new oil production -- we've heard no details -- but oil companies will own the oil. They're the ones who will get richer while Utah's landscape is chewed up.

There's no guarantee any of the resulting money will be used for education, but Utah drivers will certainly continue to pay high gasoline prices.

Bell didn't say any of that. He stuck with saying Utah would get rich if the federal government would let it.

We can only wish it were that easy.

The Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. He can be reached at 801-625-4232 or ctrentelman@standard.net. He also blogs at www.standard.net.

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