Silicon Slopes starts to speak up in Utah’s politics

SALT LAKE CITY — For over an hour, the Republican candidates vying to be Utah's next governor faced a tough series of questions from Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts.

The head of the tech industry group grilled them on perks and incentives handed out to the state, growth, affordable housing, rural Utah's economy, the inland port, LGBTQ rights, President Trump and whether developers have too much influence in Utah.

It was a lively debate at the annual Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, and with every candidate in attendance, another sign that Utah's booming tech industry is becoming more assertive in politics -- and lawmakers are listening.

"The tech industry is the fastest growing and highest paying industry in the state of Utah. I can’t imagine why a city and a county wouldn’t be interested in being a part of this conversation," said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who hosted a panel discussion at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit.

"Silicon Slopes," the nickname for Utah's tech companies mostly clustered along the Salt Lake and Utah County border, is starting to speak up on issues on Capitol Hill. Betts, who heads Silicon Slopes Commons, the industry group representing the tech companies, acknowledged they're not used to being so political.

"It’s not a natural thing. You see how I’m dressed," he said in an interview with FOX 13 on Capitol Hill, where he met with political leaders while dressed in a basketball jersey. "We don’t know how to wear suits. We don’t own suits!"

But Betts said Silicon Slopes wants "think about the entire future of the state of Utah."

They've started to support bills dealing with child care, affordable housing and transportation. A big push will be for computer science in every school in Utah by 2022. Silicon Slopes has decided to back a resolution in support of the Equal Rights Amendment in the legislature. Some of its members have also pushed to legalize "wine of the month clubs" in Utah.

"Why not?" Betts said of the wine bill.

At Friday's gubernatorial debate, the candidates seemed to be listening to Silicon Slopes and the tech CEOs took note of it.

"It signifies this broader trend of Silicon Slopes having a seat at the table, right?" said Joseph Woodbury, the CEO of Neighbor.com. "We’re finally starting to influence policy decisions."

Woodbury indicated he favored Provo businessman Jeff Burningham in the governor's race, who is also a tech CEO. He also wanted more done on Capitol Hill with lifting regulation for tech innovation.

Overstock.com CEO Jonathan Johnson said the candidates had better be paying attention to the tech industry.

"When you’re a quarter or more of the state’s economy, it’s important that you have a voice and that voice is heard," he said.

Johnson has been in politics before. He challenged Governor Gary Herbert and forced him into a primary. After the debate, Johnson said he thought former governor and U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. performed well, as did Thomas Wright.

Asked if Silicon Slopes' foray into politics is new, he told FOX 13: "The voice is louder and more clear."

Betts said Silicon Slopes will be selective on the issues it takes stands on as it starts to speak up on Capitol Hill.

"There’s real challenges that come with success. One of them being housing, another being air quality situation we have," he said. "But all of them fit under this broader theme of extending access to opportunity to all and not just a few."

Watch the governor's debate at Silicon Slopes Tech Summit here:

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