September 24 editorial
Last January and February, Utah legislators got to play Santa Claus. The state economy was humming and even the presidential candidates were making whistle stops in a state they traditionally skipped during election seasons.
So, when they convened in January with a rosy economic forecast in hand, the state’s senators and representatives were feeling flush and gave the green light to lots of spending increases.
This week, though, they will have to take back some of that largesse.
Last week, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. took a look at the growing discrepancy between what the legislators thought would be pouring into the state’s coffers and what was actually coming in. That gap was about $200 million and climbing.
On Monday he sounded the alarm by calling the legislature into a special session to decide where and how much must be cut.
Estimates of how much will have to be shaved vary from 5 to 10 percent of the overall budget. In his call for the session, Huntsman declared that public education won’t be on the chopping block but that will be up to the lawmakers.
Last winter, state funding for education got a $234 million bump, much of which went directly into the local school districts to increase teacher salaries and shrink class sizes. While it is unlikely elected officials would dare to go back on their word to school kids and their families, it now looks unlikely that education will fare as well in the next session.
In the meantime, other state funding recipients are no doubt chewing their nails. Higher education institutions were slated for increases in salaries, student financial-aid programs and other initiatives. If they haven’t yet spent the money, it might be too late.
The Department of Transportation was awarded $200 million to help mitigate traffic congestion but a dip in anticipated sales-tax revenues brought on by the nationwide economic slowdown might put the brakes on some of those projects.
There were lots of other Christmas gifts too, for air quality, open space, tourism promotion and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, along with earmarks to build a veterans’ nursing home and to expand the Gunnison prison.
And while they were handing out funds, the legislators did not forget services for children and families, the disabled, mentally ill and seniors that all received small portions of the state’s projected largesse.
But just as Congress is meeting this week to avert a bigger financial crisis, state lawmakers are also trying to responsibly address a shrinking economy.
We support the governor’s and the legislators’ attempt to address the situation now rather than waiting until the end of the year and we urge their constituents to pay close attention over the next few days to ensure that politics don’t override the best interests of the citizens.
To let your elected officials know what cuts should or should not be considered, log onto http://www.le.state.ut.us and click on the links for the senate and or the house which lead directly to individual legislators’ emails.
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Park City officials are preparing to take what is considered to be an important step in protecting the Treasure land from wildfires. City Hall in early June requested proposals from firms interested in the work.