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Employee Spotlight

Teaching from Experiences

Making taxes easier to manage and understand is one of the many things Ray Nelson is known for. Throughout his educational and professional career, he was a member of different boards and councils for the state of Utah and consultant for the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Council. As an associate professor for the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics at the BYU Marriott School of Business, Nelson is now working with an MPA student and members of the state government to create a web application to make tracking tax money easier for the state and local governments.

Ray Nelson
Ray Nelson.
Photo by BYU Photo.

Nelson began developing this app in 2020, with the goal to help tax commissions inform local governments about how much sales tax they will be allotted through forecasting. This helps local governments budget and plan how they will allocate their money in a timelier manner. Nelson hopes the completed app will be adopted by the Utah State Tax Commission, a state tax department that manages the administration of state taxes. He plans to complete the app by August 2021. “Since local government is an important part of the Romney Institute, I thought city mangers could use a tool like the app,” he says.

Nelson’s expertise with state taxes comes in part from his work for the local government for more than a decade, forecasting revenues for the state legislature under former Utah governor Olene Walker who was sworn into office in 2003. “The state legislature needed someone who could handle data, and that’s a skill that I had because I’m an econometrician. I worked with data all the time,” he says. So Nelson and his colleague Gary Cornia, a former professor and dean of BYU Marriott, spent years working with the state legislature.

“One of the best experiences of my life was the opportunity I had to create and use programming code that allowed legislators and the governor to simulate the outcome of different tax policy proposals,” says Nelson, recalling an experience he had while working for the Utah state legislature. “I could sit in a conference room and those in the meeting would say, ‘What would happen if we did this?’” Instantly, Nelson could calculate how tax policy proposals would impact tax increases and decreases using coding he developed.

Though Nelson no longer works directly with the state legislature, he is using his talents as a data scientist to finish his web application for tax revenue forecasting. Cornia continues to play a pivotal role in Nelson’s research. Nelson shares that together they are reaching out to the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the University of Utah Gardner Policy Institute to use a multipronged approach of convincing city managers of the benefits the app would provide Utah’s cities. Larry Walters, Utah state tax commissioner, and Laurel Galli, a BYU Marriott MPA student from Silver Spring, Maryland, have also helped Nelson with the app development.

As the application nears completion, Nelson anticipates retirement this summer. He hopes to continue expanding his knowledge of data science to different fields—in this case, fields of potatoes. From his home in Provo, Nelson will work on a project that involves tracking potato trucks to optimize pick-up and delivery routes. “I’m moving into a realm that I haven’t been in before,” Nelson says. “But the most important thing is that I’m going to work with my kids. My daughter and son are data scientists as well. Working with them is what I want to do.”


Writer: Rebecca Nissen