By LaVarr Webb
When Johnny Anderson was growing up in Taylorsville, he was interested in current events and politics, but he didn’t have personal political ambitions. As he began raising his own family in Taylorsville and starting a business, he had no expectation of running for office.
But Anderson ended up getting involved in politics in a natural way, starting at the grassroots level out of concern for his business and industry. From those beginnings, Anderson was appointed to the Utah House in 2009 and, even though he’s a relative newcomer, now serves as chair of the House Transportation Committee.
Anderson built a child care business with his mother, first opening a home care center in Taylorsville, then in 1992 opening a child care center in West Valley City. The business has grown to eight locations, making it the largest child care operation in the state.
Child care centers are heavily regulated, so Anderson became involved in the industry association. “I enjoyed networking and I found we all faced a lot of the same challenges as small businesses.” He was elected vice-chair of government relations. “I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I started dealing with the licensing bureau and state laws dealing with our industry, and I found governmental processes to be quite intriguing.”
Anderson, who calls himself a moderate Republican, came to understand the importance of the Legislature and that his industry needed to develop relationships, educate lawmakers, and increase its influence. “We encouraged people to get involved in the caucus process and get elected as delegates to provide more awareness of our industry,” he said. “I was elected as a state delegate and I supported the Huntsman-Herbert ticket, especially because Gary Herbert was a member of our association at the time. He and his wife had a child care business.”
Anderson also was selected to serve on the board of the national child care association and became involved in federal-level government relations. “I found it very interesting and enjoyed getting to know how government works and developing relationships with elected leaders.”
At the time, Kory Holdaway represented District 34 in the Taylorsville area of western Salt Lake County. “I liked Kory’s approach to politics and I had a good relationship with him. He would listen to our issues and was dedicated to supporting education and young people.”
When Holdaway resigned to take a job with the Utah Education Association, he contacted Anderson and encouraged him to run for the job. “I first said no, but after talking to my family and considering whether I could make a contribution, I agreed to run.”
Anderson had served as legislative district chair in District 34, so he knew most of the delegates. Five other candidates also sought the position, but he worked hard, won the support of delegates, was appointed by the governor in 2009, and was elected in his own right in 2010. “I’ve had four sessions so far. My industry involvement was really helpful, and veteran legislators have taken me under their wing. It has been a great experience.”
The district Anderson represents is a swing district, and Anderson will seek re-election in 2014. He usually has tough races and he believes his contest in the No. 1 legislative target for Democrats.
Anderson said he likes House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart’s collaborative leadership style, and he has supported her since arriving at the Legislature. He was appointed to serve on the Transportation and Education committees, and after a few sessions Lockhart appointed him vice-chair of Transportation, with veteran Rep. Brad Daw as chair. “I really enjoyed working with Brad,” Anderson said. “Then when he moved on I was in the top half in committee seniority, so Speaker Lockhart asked me to be chair.”
Anderson has immersed himself in transportation issues, and has become an advocate for excellent transportation infrastructure. “Good mobility, which results from adequate transportation investment, is absolutely key to a strong economy. Even in the child care business, we have to care about transportation because we have a fleet of buses that need to get around the valley,” he said. “Every business owes its success, in part, because visionary leaders have built great infrastructure. Mobility is one of Utah’s key assets, and we need to keep the momentum moving forward. Building transportation infrastructure is one of the genuinely proper roles of government.”
Anderson said Utah has world-class transportation agencies and metropolitan planning organizations, and he appreciates their work in developing the 2040 Unified Transportation Plan, which maps out the state’s major transportation projects and funding needs over the next 30 years. “The 2040 Plan is a great example of local governments, transportation agencies and the business community working collaboratively to ensure good mobility,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in many places in the country, and it’s a real advantage for Utah.”
Anderson’s interim Transportation Committee, which he co-chairs with Sen. Kevin Van Tassell of Vernal, spent the summer and fall focusing on the state’s transportation needs and educating committee members, other legislators, and stakeholder groups. Anderson was hopeful that the Legislature would look at some form of gasoline tax boost in the upcoming 2014 session that begins in late January.
But it’s looking unlikely that the governor and Legislature will support any sort of tax increase in the next session, so Anderson wants to spend the next interim period reviewing funding proposals with the hope of bringing a package to the 2015 session.
Asked if transportation funding competes with education, Anderson said the Legislature needs to fund both of them adequately. In general, they don’t compete directly, because education at the state level is funded mostly through the income tax and transportation through user fees like the gas tax, and also the sales tax. Also, some transportation taxes, like the sales tax that supports public transit, are approved directly by the people through ballot measures.
Anderson said he recognizes that the portion of the gas tax that is distributed to local governments is no longer sufficient to meet their needs. The gas tax has lost nearly 40 percent of its purchasing power since it was last raised in 1997. “We do need to let local governments solve their problems by providing some options,” he said.
The lawmaker also believes public transit is increasingly important in the state’s transportation mix, especially with rapid growth, air quality problems, and congested highways. “In the Salt Lake Valley, I understand the vision of transit-oriented development, with mixed use population centers connected by public transit. We see the demographics changing, people wanting to live in higher-density, mixed-use developments. Not everyone wants a half-acre with a lot of lawn in the suburbs.”
Anderson also believes legislators and citizens need to be more realistic and honest about what’s happening at the federal level. “The federal government is broke. Federal transportation funds aren’t going to immediately dry up, but we can’t count on large federal outlays on into the future.”
For Utah to be self-sufficient, taxes have to go up, Anderson said. “We’ve been kicking the can down the road for too long. Too much has been built on borrowed money. We need solid, secure funding.”
Despite the challenges, Anderson is optimistic about Utah’s long-term prospects. “We are sensible here. We work together and we have good leaders at all levels of government. We solve problems.” He said he believes Utah is ahead of most states in constructing and preserving transportation infrastructure, and will continue in that leadership position on into the future.