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Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Budget: A Refresher Course

By Lyle Hillyard
Senate Chair of Executive Appropriations

If there is a reincarnation after this life, I hope I can come back as a member of a newspaper editorial board. Their criticisms of the legislative process never cease to amaze me. It must be nice to take pot shots at specific issues and never have to worry about the global picture, balancing priorities, and what it takes to reach a consensus with so many strongly held divergent views.

This was brought again to my attention when I received (in an unmarked envelope) a copy of the editorial from the Standard Examiner, dated March 7, 2006. I usually throw away unmarked envelopes but I took the time to read the piece. I was amazed to see that I am called “disingenuous” and was accused of giving the poor the “back of the hand” while allowing the “haves” (whoever they may be) to make out very well. Maybe they feel I am one of their “hard-headed legislators” who allow common sense to crash off me.

These writers seem to blame lobbyists for whatever problem they perceive in the legislative process. They advised me to get away from the crowd of lobbyists and revisit my district. They propose that my constituents do not enjoy frequent Jazz games (neither do I) or expensive dinners on someone else’s tab (neither do I) and so they need additional hand-outs from government to ease their pain.

I understand that Ogden is far from Salt Lake and it may be hard for the editors there to find out what is going on in the Capitol, but we tried very hard during the session to shed light on the budget issues. We met regularly with reporters (even the gentleman from Ogden), and posted valuable information here on the Senate Site.

Let me explain again and hopefully they will begin to understand why the problem with their advice.

First, there are far more demands for state funds than we could ever cover. We tried to tell every group that requested money that they would have to present their requests to the appropriate budget committee and be listed on that committee’s priority list. We took $100.0 M off the table the first week to fund for the growth in public education, plus partially fund Human Service and Health needs, based on growth from last year. When we added money for tax cuts (most editorial boards seem to support tax reform as well as removing the sales tax from food), roads and water, that left insufficient money to even fund a four percent salary increase (after paying the increased costs for health insurance at last year’s benefit level and the shortage in the retirement funds).

Luckily, new revenue forecasts gave us additional money to fund a salary increase and work on our committee’s priority lists. The committees received $500.0 M worth of requests. They prioritized $221.0 M. Of that amount, we were able to fund about $100.0 M. If you look over the work of the Human Services and Health Committee, you will find that we funded quite a few of their priorities. I felt good about how we funded many programs which waited patiently for a better year like this one. People I respect as lobbyists for the poor have thanked me privately for this effort and how well they were treated when considering the total requests and challenges of budget work.

Now let’s look at the Dental and Vision challenge. They did not even make the priority list. That committee heard from all the advocates and decided that there were other needs that were better candidates for tax dollars. Comparing a one-time expenditure like the Western States Presidential Primary to ongoing funding of Dental and Vision is comparing apples to oranges. The editorial board from Ogden should pick one of the programs the Health and Human Services Committee felt was a higher priority for the money – and suggest transferring the on-going funds out of THAT program to Dental and Vision.

As the session was beginning, we learned that the Federal Government was cutting $10.0 M in this year’s budget and $20.0 M on-going from next year’s budget from Health and Human Services. That put additional pressure on us to find money for ongoing programs, rather than establish new ones. With these federal cuts, which will probably increase, we will be forced to cut other discretionary programs.

Despite my desires to fund this, and several other programs that did not make the cut, we are limited by the balanced budget requirement in the state constitution. Utah State can only spend the money it takes away from others –by taxation or by taking money from other government programs. Should we have funded vision and dental with money prioritized for improvements to the freeway west of Ogden? Maybe we could use the money earmarked for desperately needed improvements to the Weber State buildings that only barely made the funding list.

I should not be so critical of editorial board opinions because they do need to weigh competing priorities. They can miss the full perspective. They do not have to spend the intense hours we do meeting with various groups (many without paid lobbyists) and try to determine the best way to allocate taxpayer money. They do not have to meet the voters on the street who are anxious that the taxes they pay do not put them out of business or out of their homes. If Dental and Vision advocates want to be funded they should identify from which program(s) they want to take the money, realizing that each project has equally strong supporters and advocates – and do a better job making their case to their appropriations committee. They need to stand next to all the other projects, state responsibilities and programs, and explain why their need outshines the others.

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