Combat Economic Drought With Rainy Day Fund

What annual event features more trash talk than WWF Smackdown and more punches than a Mike Tyson news conference? The Utah state legislative session, of course.

This year promises not to disappoint. Even before Monday’s opening of the six week session, legislators and lobbyists displayed signs of surliness, including a brawl over gun rights.

Utah’s budget deficit, however, promises to loom larger than any issue from guns to Gayle Ruzicka. With a $202 million shortfall, the state’s coffers suddenly appear more barren than a Sahara landscape. Legislators appear ready to make all the wrong moves, unleashing spending cuts instead of dipping into $160 million of past surpluses?the state’s much ballyhooed rainy day fund.

We’ve got $160 million lying around? Shocking, I know.

In the 1980s, the Legislature began setting aside portions of Utah’s annual budget surplus. They kept the cash for a rainy day instead of giving it back to its rightful owners?the taxpayers. Legislators reasoned that during an economic downturn and corresponding budget shortage, past surpluses could maintain solvency without necessitating draconian spending cuts.

Apparently, the economic downturn has arrived, as tax revenues leave the government short of its financial commitments. To compensate, the Executive Appropriations Committee met last week to propose a handsome slash and burn program. While the Legislature’s axe-men propose slicing and dicing education, human services and economic development, they refuse to seriously mention the possibility of allocating rainy day funds.

The notion of a rainy day fund presents a dilemma. Shouldn’t the state return excess revenues to the tax paying citizens who produced the surplus? After all, what right does the Legislature have to hold public funds indefinitely?

Such schemes typically aggravate conservatives who believe money belongs in the hands of private individuals, not the government. Right wingers accuse liberals of elitism, of pretending to know better than the common folk how to manage money. So why would Republicans support locking away budget surpluses instead of returning the money to the taxpayers?

Perhaps they believe the prospect of stormy weather necessitates owning a security blanket. But how low must the economic barometer sink to justify appropriating money from the rainy day fund? Apparently, pretty damn low.

The fund exists in order to ease the pain of an economic slump?when less-than expected tax revenues produce a budget deficit. According to leading conservatives at the Legislature, the fund remains off limits despite the current recession and resulting deficit. Instead, they will inflict a harsh winter on numerous Utahns as sizable spending cuts appear imminent.

The Executive Appropriations Committee met Thursday to propose funding cuts for hot meals delivered to elderly residents. They recommended an increase in the co-payments working poor families make for their children’s health care. And they reduced funding used to pay overtime to highway troopers. Meanwhile, the $160 million rainy day fund sits untouched.

Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, recently told The Salt Lake Tribune, “If we slow down the growth of state government, I don’t think that’s a bad thing?We’re going to have to trim some fat. To some degree, it’s healthy to starve the beast.”

Unfortunately, the state is not some lifeless entity that legislators can hack and beat without deeply felt repercussions. State employees rely on government jobs and numerous residents benefit from public spending, whether in the form of subsidized health care or financing of the arts.

Spending cuts will affect diverse groups of Utahns. What do you anticipate as the answer to a $19 million reduction in the higher education budget? Tuition hikes, no doubt.

When no other options exist, spending reductions may become necessary. Yet when the state holds $160 million of past surpluses, such cuts look foolish. What purpose does the rainy day fund serve if not to alleviate the effects of an economic headache?

Legislators have an obligation to give back to the people what is rightfully theirs. The rainy day fund accumulated through years of economic prosperity when legislators decided not to refund extra taxpayer money. Why let excess goods sit idle in the silo during a poor harvest? Savings do not exist for their own sake?they exist for use during lean years.

Not only do legislators show a lack of judgment in refraining from rainy day spending, they display poor leadership.

Back in October, House Speaker Marty Stephens, R Farr West, told the Deseret News, “We really don’t know how to handle this?we haven’t had to do this before.”

Comforting words from a man rumored to be eying the governor’s mansion.

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, claims dipping too far into the rainy day fund seems unwise because the current economic downturn may last several years. If such a scenario materializes, reasons Garn, we’ll need the rainy day fund even more in the future.

Perhaps Garn doesn’t understand his role as a legislative leader. Frightening that a man rumored to be coveting Jim Hansen’s congressional seat would display such a lack of leadership and confidence in dealing with the economy. Part of the reason for spending the rainy day surplus now is to invest the money back into the economy in order to stimulate spending and create jobs, thus reducing the chances of a multi-year economic slump.

Of course, this logic obviously escapes legislators who proposed nearly $11 million in cuts from economic development and commerce and revenue. How do they expect to reignite the smoldering embers of a once roaring economy? Apparently the Legislature’s plan calls for economic stimulation through rain dances and human sacrifices.

The 2002 legislative session provides a special opportunity for individuals like Stephens and Garn to prove their leadership ability. Yet both men seem prepared to wait out the rainstorm, hoping the current drizzle doesn’t become a downpour.

James welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letter to the editor to: [email protected].