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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Word from Utah County

Today's Daily Herald:
Overall they did well, which is good because this session is just a warm-up for tough choices they'll likely face in the regular session.

The slowing economy punctured some revenue assumptions, so Gov. Jon Huntsman called the special session to take spending down a notch or two. Legislators cut $354 million in spending to balance the budget for the current fiscal year.

The governor and lawmakers acted commendably. They could have waited until January, but taking action now addresses trouble before it gets worse. Because Utah legislators are part-time, the whole process required personal sacrifices of time as representatives and senators dropped their normal occupations to stream to the Capitol.

The lawmakers vowed that they would not allow public education to be hurt by the cuts in the current budget year, and they succeeded in shielding it.

That was a prudent move, considering the esteem Utahns have for education and the fact that (mainly because of large families) the state already spends less per capita on public education than any other state.

Utah's Legislature has a terrific track record of sound fiscal management, and the special session only served to reinforce that reputation. Legislative leaders said they planned to continue their pattern of prudence.

They seem to have spread the pain around evenly and judiciously. Almost every state function (aside from public education) will take a 3 percent budget cut; higher education took 4 percent. The reductions included trims in travel expenses, state building projects and administrative costs.

But the lawmakers wanted to avoid deep cuts in spending on core infrastructure, and they seem to have succeeded there, too. They argued that in the long run spending on roads and other vital projects would be counterproductive. Costs will only rise.

But making infrastructure a priority prompted the predictable complaint that the legislature was promoting roads and neglecting human beings. It's worth looking at this notion, for it surely will come up in future budget battles.

First of all, what would motivate elected officials to neglect human beings? Roads don't vote; people do. Politicians always try to help people. The question is how to do it.

Utah must give a reasonably high priority to keeping its roads in good shape. If nothing else, the economy depends on it. If the roads crumble, there will be less money for social programs.

The rebuild of Interstate 15 in Utah County is the best example. The state must fund some alternate routes, or the region's economy will get slammed during the time its main highway is being revamped. The best way to ensure that Utah can watch out for people is to keep the highways in the best shape possible.

Moreover, government usually does a fairly good job at building roads. It has had less success in trying to solve human problems. Giving infrastructure a high priority is the best way to ensure that the state will be able to meet other needs.

All in all, Utah seems to have maintained its tradition of prudent, careful budgeting. With Congress and the U.S. Treasury running up trillions in debt and states running into the red by billions, our Legislators seem wiser than ever.

No one thinks this is the end of budget turmoil. Utah's own experts predict the economy will remain sluggish through 2009. Legislators were able to avoid some additional cuts only by taking some money from programs that were funded for one year to pay for ongoing items such as salaries. In effect, they only delayed further budget cuts.

It's true that the state has about $500 million in reserve. But the budget has grown to about $11 billion. That reserve can plug a couple of holes, but it may not be able to neutralize all the red ink that could come our way in the next year or two.

That makes the next session of the Legislature one of the most important in years. It's good that our lawmakers had a little practice before January.


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