Report: Utah’s Oligarchs – Fighting to Maintain Their Political and Economic Control
Take a Dive into Utah’s Swamp
An Investigative Report on Utah’s Elite
By Ronald Mortensen, Columnist at Utah Standard News / April 30, 2018
An oligarchy is a system where power rests with a small number of people—the rule of the few. The oligarchs may be distinguished by their wealth, their family ties, or by corporate, religious or military control. The word “oligarch” is generally used when referring to Russian entities. President Trump recently laid sanctions on 38 Russian oligarchs, government officials and business groups. In Utah we have our group of oligarchs who exercise disproportionate political and economic power.
Utah Oligarchs and Ballot Initiatives
The Utah’s Oligarchs’ fingerprints can be found all over the Count My Vote (aka Buy My Vote), Our Schools Now and Medicaid expansion citizen (ballot) initiatives. The Count My Vote initiative greatly enhances the Oligarch’s political power by ensuring that money plays the key role in deciding the outcome of political campaigns. The Our Schools Now initiative forced the 2018 legislature to raise taxes and increase education funding. And, if passed, the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative will allow the Oligarchs to shift a portion of their health care costs to the taxpayers.
Over the years, the Utah Oligarchs have consistently fought to maintain their power whenever they felt threatened. In 2000, the Oligarchs were surprised when Governor Michael O. Leavitt was forced into a primary election but he still won so no real harm was done. Four years later the Oligarchs were angered when Governor Olene Walker was denied the Republican gubernatorial nomination but they let it pass since she entered the race late and delegates sent two candidates who were fully acceptable to the Oligarchs to a primary election – Jon Huntsman, Jr. and Nolan Karras. However, they were shaken to the core when Senator Robert Bennett’s career was unceremoniously ended by the delegates to the Republican State convention in 2010 and they resolved to never let it happen again.
In January of 2012, Leavitt announced that he was supporting the Oligarchs’ Count My Vote ballot initiative that would be placed on the 2014 ballot. That ballot initiative was subsequently withdrawn after the Utah state legislature caved-in to the Oligarchs’ demands and passed SB54 in March 2014. SB54 gives candidates a dual pathway to the ballot—by the convention or by gathering signatures. This ensures that the Oligarchs can maintain political control by financing campaigns which are now money driven. When the Oligarchs faced pushback against SB54 from Republican Party activists, the Oligarchs resurrected their ballot initiative and are close to getting it on the 2018 ballot.
The second Utah Oligarch driven ballot initiative in 2017/18 was titled My Schools Now. Like the original County My Vote ballot initiative, it achieved its desired results without requiring a vote of the people because the legislature caved-in and gave the Oligarchs most of what they were demanding: a property tax increase, sharply increased education funding and an agreement to put a question on the 2018 ballot asking taxpayers if they support a 10 cent per gallon (33%) gas tax increase. The Oligarchs were for the most part held harmless because over the years, they have managed to get the legislature to either totally eliminate or sharply reduce the taxes they pay.
The third ballot initiative supported by the Oligarchs would require Utah to fully implement the ObamaCare Medicaid expansion. This would allow the Oligarchs to shift some of their health care expenses to the taxpayers by moving lower paid employees from their employer health plans onto Medicaid. Perversely, the Oligarchs are relying on the non-profit, United Way to support the Medicaid initiative on their behalf,
Identifying the Oligarchs—Follow the Money
Utah’s Oligarchs can be identified by following the money and by looking at the intricate systems that they have put in place to grow and protect their political and economic power.
The Oligarchs who developed and/or provided major funding for the Count My Vote ballot initiatives include former Governor Mike Leavitt, Gail Miller, Scott Anderson, Kem Gardner, Dell Loy Hansen, Khosrow B. Semnani, Bruce Bastian, Mark Miller, John Price, H. Roger Boyer, Brent Beesley, and David Simmons. Other Oligarchs giving substantial support to the initiative included Val Overson, Kirk Jowers, Norma Matheson, S.F. Eccles, Bryson Garbett, LaVarr Webb and Rich McKeown. Oligarch controlled organizations that provide support included the Salt Lake and Sandy Chambers of Commerce, the Hatch Election Committee, Garff Enterprises, and the Huntsman Corporation.
Many of the same oligarchs that support the Count My Vote ballot initiative were behind the Our Schools Now tax increases passed by the legislature. These include Scott Anderson, Gail Miller, Robert Garff, Kem Gardner, Brent Beesley, and Mark Miller. They were joined by Lane Beattie, Bob Marquardt, David H. Burton, and the heads of major Utah businesses including Bear River Mutual, CBRE, the Boyer Company, Jacobsen Construction, Clyde Company, Intermountain Health, NuSkin, Leavitt Partners, Sandy Chamber of Commerce, City Creek Center, and Maverick.
As will be seen below, the names of the individuals and corporations that are associated with the ballot initiatives come up over and over again as one looks at the systems that have been put in place to achieve the Utah Oligarchs’ agenda.
Organizations that Support and Further the Oligarchs’ Agenda
The Oligarchs rely on a wide range of organizations to shape public opinion. These include the Salt Lake Chamber and its numerous front groups (Prosperity 2020, Utah Transportation Coalition, the Downtown Alliance), Utah Policy, Utah Pulse, the United Way, the Utah Foundation, Envision Utah and the Kem C. Gardner Public Policy Institute. The Oligarchs fund these organizations and are represented on their boards of directors. In return, the organizations give legitimacy to the Oligarchs’ agenda, build public support for Oligarch initiatives and discredit or neutralize any opposition to the Oligarch’s agenda that may arise.
Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce: The Salt Lake Chamber is where the Oligarchs come together to develop their plans and it plays a key role in implementing the Oligarchs’ agenda. The Chamber has conferred its “Giant of the City Award” on leading Utah Oligarchs—Roger Boyer and Ellis Ivory, Bishop H. David Burton, Kem C. Gardner, A. Scott Anderson and Harrison Simmons, Michael O. Leavitt, Gail Miller and Senator Orrin Hatch. A. Scott Anderson, Kem C. Gardner and Mark Miller have chaired the Chambers’ board.
The Salt Lake Chamber helps develop the Oligarchs’ public policy initiatives ranging from the Utah Compact to gasoline tax increases. It serves as the lobbying arm of the Oligarchs and it creates front groups to promote Oligarch Programs. The Salt Lake Chamber funds that advances the Oligarchs’ agenda and has seats on their boards of directors.
Utah Policy: Utah Policy plays a key role in maintaining the Utah Oligarch’s control of public policy in Utah. Their activities “are designed to help policymakers accomplish their objectives.” Utah Policy is joined at the hip with Utah Pulse which is a Zions Bank product. The President and CEO of Zions Bank, Scott Anderson, is also a major supporter of the Count My Vote and Our Schools Now initiatives. In addition, Zions Bank is a major funder of Utah Policy’s push polls which are designed to get predetermined results that show strong public support for the Oligarchs’ political and policy objectives.
LaVarr Webb is the publisher of both Utah Policy and Utah Pulse. He is also the founder of the Exoro Group, a political consulting group that proclaims: “We find the answers, relationships and resources you need to get the change you want.” Among Exoro’s clients are Count My Vote, Zion’s Bank, the Salt Lake Chamber, the Downtown Alliance, Sandy City, Utah Policy, and the Utah Foundation.
Utah Pulse: Zions Bank’s Utah Pulse lists Utah Policy as one of its partners. Other Utah Pulse partners are the Governor’s Office of Economic Development where Leavitt’s former chief of staff and spokesperson serves on the Executive Management Team, the World Trade Center—Utah where Zions president and CEO, A. Scott Anderson serves on the Board, USTAR which Anderson once championed and chaired and where LaVarr Webb played a role, and Mountain West Capital Network (business networking organization). But perhaps Utah Policy’s most important partner is the powerful and ubiquitous Salt Lake Chamber.
According to the Deseret News, Zions Bank President & CEO, A. Scott Anderson’s “fingerprints are all over the state.” Anderson is a former two time chair of the Salt Lake Chamber’s board. He was honored by the Chamber as a “Giant of the City.” In turn, Zions Bank has been a “Chairman Level Sponsor” of the Salt Lake Chamber and the Salt Lake Chamber, is Zion’s Partner in Utah Pulse. Zion’s Bank also funds and has seats on the boards of directors of many other organizations that support the Oligarch’s agenda.
Prosperity 2020: The Salt Lake Chamber hosts Prosperity 2020 which is a partnership of 21 chambers across the state of Utah. Prosperity 2020 promotes increased government spending and tax increases that are designed to maximize the benefits that accrue to the Oligarchs.
Zions Bank President & CEO A. Scott Anderson has been a member of Prosperity 2020’s Business Executive Leadership Council. In 2014, he published an Op Ed in the Deseret News promoting the Prosperity 2020 agenda.
Utah Transportation Coalition: In order to further the Oligarchs demand for increased funding for transportation, the Oligarch driven Salt Lake Chamber created another front group, the Utah Mobility Coalition around 2011, to focus on long-term taxpayer funding and planning issues related to Utah’s mobility. The Chamber’s former executive vice-president and general counsel, Robbin Riggs, was chosen to lead it.
By 2013, the Chamber and the Oligarchs had replaced the Utah Mobility Coalition with another front group, the Utah Transportation Coalition. The Transportation Coalition’s Director, Abby Osborne, has a Salt Lake Chamber business address, a Salt Lake Chamber e-mail address and a Salt Lake Chamber phone number.
The Utah Transportation Coalition collaborates with its partners “to make smart and sustainable transportation choices and to secure adequate, stable and long term [taxpayer] funding to support a high quality of life and economic growth in Utah.” This includes a 20% gas tax increase that was passed in 2015 and a demand for yet another 33% gas tax increase.
The Transportation Coalition’s members include tax consuming (governmental) entities, the Salt Lake Chamber, the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), and the major construction and other transportation oriented companies in Utah that benefit directly from taxpayer funding of transportation projects.
In April 2013, LaVarr Webb of Utah Policy wrote: “I work with the Utah Mobility Coalition, sponsored by the Salt Lake Chamber, so I am involved in a variety of transportation issues.” He then moved on to work with the Utah Transportation Coalition.
Health Systems Reform Task Force: On the health care front, the Oligarchs, through the Salt Lake Chamber, favored a “measured approach” to Medicaid expansion which would have allowed the Oligarchs to move their lower paid employees onto taxpayer funded Medicaid. The Chamber sponsored a survey designed to show strong public support for Governor Herbert’s “Healthy Utah” plan and the Chamber uses another front group, the Health Systems Reform Task Force, to push the Oligarch’s health care agenda.
Downtown Alliance: Another Salt Lake Chamber front group is the Downtown Alliance which is “dedicated to building a dynamic and diverse [Salt Lake City] community that is the regional center for culture, commerce and entertainment.” The Alliance is headed by Jason Mathis and the Downtown Alliance’s address is the same as the Salt Lake Chamber’s. Since 2008, Mathis has served as both the executive director of the Alliance and Executive Vice President of the Salt Lake Chamber.
Mathis also headed the Oligarch’s efforts to obtain amnesty for illegal aliens and for the Utah Oligarchs who unlawfully employ them. Mathis was named a Champion of Change by the Obama Administration for helping get the Oligarch’s pro-amnesty, Utah Compact in place.
United Way: Perversely, the Utah Oligarchs rely on the Utah United Way, a non-profit charitable organization, to advocate for many of their initiatives including increasing the size and scope of government and tax increases. The United Way supports the Oligarch’s Medicaid expansion efforts, educational initiatives, and efforts to increase taxes.
Deborah Bayle, who served as the President and CEO of the United Way for many years, was formerly the Chamber’s Chief Operating Officer. Bayle shifted the United Way’s focus to one of creating meaningful and measurable social change and under her leadership it enhanced its public policy and social change strategies. The current United Way CEO, Bill Crim, serves on the Salt Lake Chamber’s Board of Governors.
The Oligarchs exercise strong control over the United Ways’ governance both directly and indirectly. Utah Policy, Prosperity 2020 and the Salt Lake Chamber are among the United Way’s advocacy partners. LeeAnne B. Linderman, Zions Bank Executive Vice President and Corporate Secretary, serve on the Executive Committee of the United Way as do representatives of the Larry Miller family and the Mark and Kathie Miller foundation. The Salt Lake Chamber is represented on the Board by the Chamber’s Chief Operating Officer, Heidi Walker..
According to the United Way website, advocacy includes influencing public policy. The United Way actively advocates and lobbies for greater taxpayer funding for Oligarch supported priorities including Our Schools Now, early childhood education and government provided health care—CHIP, the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, community health centers and a ballot initiative that would require the state to take full advantage of Medicaid expansion. To pay for the state’s share of the larger Medicaid program, the Medicaid expansion initiative would raise the state sales tax from 4.7 percent to 4.85 percent – or a 3.1 percent increase. According to a December 2017 Utah Policy poll, 60% of Utahns support the Medicaid expansion initiative.
Utah Foundation: Another organization that the Oligarchs use to promote their agenda is the Utah Foundation. The Utah Foundation “promotes a thriving economy, a well-prepared workforce, and a high quality of life for Utahns by performing thorough, well-supported research that helps policymakers, business and community leaders, and citizens better understand complex issues and providing practical, well-reasoned recommendations for policy change.” Zions bank along with the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies are Platinum Level sponsors. Both have a seat on the Board of Trustees as does the Salt Lake Chamber (Heidi Walker) and UtahPolicy (LaVarr Webb).
The Utah Foundation’s studies are frequently designed to obtain results that support the Oligarch’s agenda. Utah Policy polls, which are often funded by Zions Bank, are then used to show that strong public support exists for the Foundation’s findings and recommendations.
Envision Utah: The Oligarchs also support Envision Utah which helps drive the Oligarchs’ agenda. Scott Anderson serves on Envision Utah’s board of directors as does the Director of the Kem Gardner Policy Institute, a representative of the Salt Lake Chamber and LaVarr Webb as well as many others who are on the boards of other Oligarch supported groups.
Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute: In 2015 the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute joined the ranks of Oligarch supported organizations. Like the Utah Foundation, the Policy Institute develops information that allows individuals and the community to make informed decisions. It prepares the state’s official population estimates that drive legislative decisions. Zions Bank, the Larry Miller Group and the Gardner group are all Legacy Partners ($100,000 contribution). The Salt Lake Chamber is a Sustaining Partner ($50,000 contribution).
Natalie Gochnour, serves as the director of the Policy Institute. She also serves as the chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber. In addition, Gochnour has advised Utah governors Norm Bangerter, Mike Leavitt and Olene Walker.
In summary, Utah’s Oligarchs have established an entire network of interlocking organizations to reinforce their political power and to help make their agenda, the state’s agenda. The fruits of their labor can be seen in the plethora of tax and fee increases passed by the Utah State legislature in recent years, by the unwinding of the caucus/convention system and by the growth of government at all levels.