I’m writing this column in the closing hours of the 2011 general session as we put to bed the last few remaining issues the Legislature will consider.
One issue that broke last week dealt with our government records laws and the way we handle electronic records and various technologies that didn’t exist when the law was originally enacted. HB477, Government Records Amendments, was proposed with about a week left in the session. It moved through the two chambers quickly, which led to concern by media outlets and citizens that things were happening too fast.
After the bill passed, we had a weekend to think it over, and the Legislature decided we needed a little more time to find the appropriate balance on this issue and recalled it from the governor’s desk for some amendments. The bill now has a delayed effective date and a task force has been appointed to hear concerns from all sides.
The governor has promised to call the Legislature back into a special session in June where we will implement changes suggested by the task force. One of the limitations of our 45-day session is that sometimes in our zeal to finish our work by the end of session deadline, we get ahead of ourselves and the will of the people. One of the great parts about out system is that we can always reconsider our actions and change our minds upon further investigation. This compromise will allow us the proper time and provide the proper venue to give this important issue the consideration it deserves.
The budget for the coming fiscal year is always one of the last things to be finalized before we close the session for the year. Weighing in at nearly $12 billion, this year’s budget experience was a much happier one than in past years. It is my very sincere hope that we have reached the end of budget cuts due to the recession.
We started the session staring down a $313 million shortfall. After revised revenue estimates came through in late February, we were able to shrink the gap to $50 million. Though it still boggles my mind a bit to cheer a $50 million dollar budget gap, I know there are legislators across the nation who would gladly trade Utah’s deficit for their own. The 7 percent across the board cuts that we thought would be necessary at the beginning of the session have now been pared down to 1 percent, although some departments might be slightly higher or lower.
In our new budget, we will be able to fully fund public education including the projected growth of approximately 14,000 new students. This is the first time that this growth has been funded in three years due to the recession. Higher education will also do better than in past years, with only a 1.6 percent cut to their budget. Medicaid spending, unfortunately, continues to increase. That budget will grow by 4.1 percent as we attempt to fund ongoing programs as well as new caseload growth.
This is an area of the budget that is growing so fast we can hardly keep up with it. As the federal health care laws start taking affect, this budget could sky rocket even more. The Legislature is starting a process this year to look at Medicaid reform in order to control Medicaid spending in the future.
The budget process, like the entire legislative process, can be a bit noisy and boisterous at times. There are always some differences of opinion of what should be funded or done and to what extent. Compromise is a big part of the process and this year is no exception.
However, we can all agree on the importance of a balanced budget and that everyone is trying to do what they think best; that gets us through the worst of disagreements on how to spend our limited resources.
Overall, things are much better financially this year than the last two. We all hope that the economy can continue to grow and allow us the opportunity to keep funding education and the other state programs that are so critical to our communities.
If the economy does improve, the challenge will be to continue our fiscal conservative attitude and not allow state government to grow as rapidly as it did during the years before the financial balloon popped.
We can all agree that returning to a time of budget cuts brought on by speculation and overspending is something we never want to do again. Thank you all for the opportunity to represent you on the Hill this session.
During the session, I often get e-mails and calls from constituents urging me to vote this way or that way on a particular issue. Sometimes I even get feedback from folks after the fact that think I voted on the wrong side of an issue and wonder what on earth I could possibly have been thinking! The considerations that go into a vote are many and varied, but the most important consideration is you.
The Legislature considers nearly 1,000 bills every year in the short timeframe of 45 days. I employ a range of strategies to help me get a sense of how the communities I represent feel about the issues of the day. Obviously not everyone is united on a course of action, so one of the most important factors I consider when casting a vote is the feedback from my pre-session legislative surveys. Each year, before the session begins, I compile a list of questions on the hot topics that are expected to come before the Legislature and ask my constituents to let me know what they think. This year I asked about topics ranging from possible budget cuts to liquor licenses to immigration reform. I would like to thank everyone that took the time to complete and return the survey.
Several of the survey questions dealt with difficult budget questions. Though our budget picture is much rosier than a year ago, we knew before the session started that we would have to either make additional budget cuts or raise taxes in order to cover our existing budget needs, let alone fund any growth or inflation. When I asked you to rank your highest budget priorities, the two highest ranked items were fixing the deficit and funding growth in public education. Our latest budget proposal presented last Tuesday included funding for the 14,700 new students expected to enter Utah schools next year and sought to ensure we used on-going revenue sources for on-going programs so as to avoid cuts when one-time sources ran dry. In short, we put together a balanced budget.
Another question asked whether taxes and corresponding services should increase, decrease or remain the same. Just over 60 percent of respondents said they wanted taxes and services to remain at current levels. I have worked to resist any calls for tax increase knowing that the majority of my constituents are comfortable with the existing levels and our fragile economic recovery could be threatened with any increased tax burden on families.
Another hot topic this year has been proposals to change our alcohol laws. I compiled a list of the most probable proposals and asked for respondents to mark all the proposals they supported. I received a wide range of answers to these questions, but the two proposals that received the highest number of votes involved more strict use of driver interlock devices after a DUI and scanning driver’s licenses to verify the age of those patronizing bars, taverns, and clubs. There are several bills this year dealing with DUI penalties and strengthening the provisions related to inter-lock devices. In addition, Sen. John Valentine, R-Provo, has proposed a major overhaul of our alcohol laws looking at items including the number of restaurant liquor licenses and enhanced enforcement on age restrictions and inspections.
I asked three different questions on the subject of immigration reform that reflected various proposals by legislators. Though the questions dealt with very different approaches to our broken immigration system, by your responses, you seemed to like having all options on the table. Eighty-six percent of respondents said they supported enforcement-based immigration laws, 85 percent supported the development of a guest-worker program, and 71 percent supported the repeal of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. Each of these issues is the subject of several individual bills and one comprehensive immigration bill that attempts to take pieces from every approach. The results tell me that my constituents believe these issues need a multifaceted response from the state and no one bill is the answer.
We take our charge very seriously to represent you and to reflect the values and beliefs of our communities. Don’t be afraid to reach out and let your legislators know how you feel about the issues of the day. We can’t represent you if we don’t know your views.
Do you know what makes week five of the legislative session special? It is the week when we receive the revenue estimates that dictate how much money the state has to spend and frames the final three weeks of budget negotiations.
Up until this point, we have been using estimates from the third quarter of 2010. These new numbers give us a much better look at how the past year closed and how the New Year has begun.
The release of the revenue estimates has been a time of apprehension the past few years. Revenue projections have been failing, at times rapidly, since this same week in 2008. Few things are more disheartening at this point in the session than learning you’ll have to go back into budget cutting mode after having already endured weeks of painful budget cutting meetings. It was one year ago today that I wrote my traditional week five revenue article that I announced that we had finally stopped falling; the revenue projects had come back as predicted, a sign the recession had at least hit bottom.
This year the numbers are much more positive and show we are indeed on the track to financial recovery. Our first estimates showed that we were short $313 million of meeting our current state liabilities without taking into account inflation or growth. The numbers projected only $216 million in new revenue, making for a $97 million net shortfall. This week’s estimates show $47 million in additional revenue growth making our total growth $263 million. It is interesting to note that the $47 million breaks down into $13 million in the general fund and $34 million in the education fund.
The lion’s share of the growth is coming as personal income tax, which is dedicated to education by our state constitution. This means Utah families are once again starting to see increases in their personal bottom line. These numbers are all ongoing revenue sources. We also saw an increase of $31 million in one-time funding sources that can be used to temporarily prop up programs while we await the more dependable growth in ongoing revenue.
When you do the math of the ongoing shortfall, combined with the new on-going estimates, we are left about $50 million short of meeting our ongoing needs. This is a much rosier picture than the one we faced just a week ago, but it doesn’t mean that all our problems are over. In addition to the now $50 million shortfall, we must also consider growth and inflation in Medicaid and public education which will require roughly $120 million combined in additional funding. Obviously, we still have some tough financial decisions to make in the last few weeks of the session, but we will be able to restore many of the cuts that were passed in base budgets a few weeks ago.
I’m excited to finally see our economy returning to a growth stage. The past few years of deep budget cuts have taken their toll on each and every section on the state budget and deeply impacted the psyche of every legislator when it comes to spending decisions. I feel that the lessons, though hard, have been valuable and helpful in our effort to streamline government. I commit, we will continue to be fiscally conservative in our budget spending so we can continue to experience economic recovery and growth.