SALT LAKE CITY - A pair of Top of Utah lawmakers think a state program for innovation has been long on claims and short on performance.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, and Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, both had strong words for officials representing the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) during an appropriations review of the program this week.
An audit of USTAR during the interim in 2013 said the group had over-reported its successes and doctored its numbers. There were 15 findings involving the organization set up in 2006 to help bring innovation in technical areas and help provide more high-paying jobs.
"In my career I've seen this movie before and I know how it ends, there's no question how it ends ... The Legislature isn't going to keep funding this if you can't demonstrate real progress, it's just not going to happen," Reid said.
Following a release of the audit last year, Gov. Gary Herbert appointed former Lt. Gov. Greg Bell to oversee the board and the USTAR board employed a private auditing firm to take an independent look at the group's numbers and practices.
Representatives from the independent audit firm were part of the USTAR presentation. Their answers on why there wasn't a better handle on jobs the program has initiated and how much tax revenue has come to the state, left Reid frustrated.
Reid suggested USTAR officials don't understand what a return on investment (ROI) is.
"This is my whole deal. It's been a PR pitch from the beginning of this thing. Demonstration should prove itself and be black and white," Reid said.
Jenkins confronted Bell about what he described as a culture of corruption coming from USTAR. He said he likes what has happened since Bell took a leadership role with the board, but he is troubled by old patterns.
"I believe over the last few years there has been a culture of untruth and lies come out of this group. You've presented us with ROI figures that were wrong. Old chairs (chairmen of the board) have lobbied me, fed me and fed me with food and other truths. I feel somewhat offended when it turns out they weren't right," Jenkins said.
Jenkins pressed Bell on whether he has been successful in changing that culture, but answered the question before Bell could respond. Jenkins said he was tired of the hot air coming out of USTAR.
"You've told us good things today. I want to believe these things. But I don't believe for a minute that the culture has changed. I see many of the same people sitting down there. It becomes hard to support if you don't believe that your board has control of this," Jenkins said. He said he wanted assurance the state's money was being well spent.
Bell described Jenkins' assertion as heavy words, but he said he has found no evidence that a single dollar of state funds hasn't been accounted for.
"I don't come here to give you 'rah-rah.' I understand the investment of the state isn't a small one," Bell said. He said the board will hire a new executive director who will have a tighter handle on due diligence and be able to provide answers on the state's investment into the program.
The state has invested $134.2 million from fiscal years 2007 through 2014 in the economic development/research program.
Officials from USTAR facilities at both the University of Utah and Utah State University made short presentations on some of the innovation and jobs the group has helped generated and suggested without USTAR those researchers, jobs and innovation wouldn't come to Utah.
Discussion of USTAR is expected to come up in committee again this morning (Thursday) when the appropriations committee takes a closer look at funding for the project.
Jenkins told the Standard-Examiner that the financial review could potentially result in less financial support for the group in the coming year.