If Congress and the president go plunging off the so-called "fiscal cliff" at month's end, they could take Utah's state budget along for the ride.
"It really is kind of unconscionable that they wouldn't come together and find a resolution to this," Gov. Gary Herbert said in an interview Monday.
Legislative analysts forecast a spike in federal taxes could dry up disposable income and, combined with a drop in federal spending, might drain more than half a billion dollars from state revenues and plunge Utah back into recession.
And that bleak assessment doesn't even take into account reduced federal assistance to the state, a result of automatic cuts scheduled to kick in as part of the so-called sequestration.
Herbert heads to Washington on Tuesday, one of several governors meeting with President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and he said he plans to deliver the message that Congress needs to make a deal and avert the crisis.
"I think the concern for most of the governors, Republican and Democrat, is you've got to get it done. You can't just kick the can down the road," Herbert said. "I think the uncertainty causes a great deal of problems for the marketplace and the economy. It hurts us in knowing what we'll do with our budget, what revenue streams will be and how it's going to impact our business."
Legislative economist Andrea Wilko told lawmakers Monday that, in the worst-case scenario, in which all of the federal tax cuts expire and cuts to federal spending kick in, the $300 million in revenue growth that lawmakers are expecting in the coming year would turn into a $248 million deficit.
Even if Bush-era tax cuts expire only for those making more than $250,000 as the Obama administration is advocating and the payroll and other temporary tax cuts expire, the state revenue forecasts would drop from $300 million to $105 million.
In either case, there would be a small, one-time bump of $15 million as investors cash out of the market.
The uncertainty has Utah legislators proceeding with caution, waiting until February when new revenue estimates are available and the situation with the fiscal cliff is more clear to begin making budget decisions.
"It's only appropriate that we prepare a budget that has revenue numbers we can trust," said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, "and right now I can't trust those numbers."
The goal is always to balance the budget based on the best estimates available, but with all the uncertainty, Dee said, "right now Washington, D.C., is making that very hard for us."
Impacts of the fiscal cliff on taxpayers (per tax return):
Income below $20,113: $412 tax increase
Income above $20,113 but below $39,790: $1,231 tax increase
Income above $39,790 but below $64,484: $1,984 tax increase
Income above $64,484 but below $108,266: $3,540 tax increase
Income above $108,266: $14,173 tax increase
The top 1 percent of taxpayers (those making $506,210 or more) would see a $120,537 tax increase.
Average tax increase: $3,446.
Source: Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center analysis of all tax provisions