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Utah senators reluctantly OK strict spending controls

Published February 23, 2012 12:47 pm

Legislature • Measure resembles Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah lawmakers wrestled Thursday with their angst over a proposed resolution that would amend the state constitution to restrict spending based on overall economic health and a need of a three-fifths vote in both chambers to exceed those limitations.

The resolution, SJR22, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, and Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, mirrors Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which tightly controls legislators' ability to adjust spending based on economic need because it uses the previous year's measures to balance the current year's budget.

Some Utah senators argued there was little need for a constitutional measure because they believed they have been strong stewards of the budget and didn't need something so dramatic.

The resolution passed 16-13, but will need to clear one more vote to get through the Senate.

Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said states such as California already have balanced-budget amendments and still run deficits regularly. He said the only way to show disciplined spending is to make the cuts or increases as money allows and that any politician who doesn't follow that can be booted from office.

"This flies in the face of what we've shown historically," Hillyard said.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, was more blunt in his criticism.

"This is absolutely about perception and not reality," he said. "The reality is this is completely unnecessary. The reality is this sets a precedent — it's a very concerning precedent. I think this is a terrible bill."

The resolution would require surplus state revenues go toward debt service, budget reserves and disaster relief — with any excess refunded to taxpayers.

Because of the high hurdle required to adjust the budget, lawmakers feared it would tie their hands — much like Colorado lawmakers have struggled when revenues were down in a bad economy and the state had to cut, amid great outcries, education funding.

Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, said a recent trip by Colorado lawmakers to Utah served as an eye-opener.

She said the visitors urged Utah not to adopt a constitutional amendment like the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights because it's debilitating and has a ratchet-down effect in which cuts can never be restored due to the need of voter approval and the three-fifths requirement to replenish coffers in a good economy. Colorado has had its measure in place since the early 1990s.

"They couldn't stress more the dangers of passing a bill like this," Jones said. "It has very much harmed their economy."

But lawmakers also worried about the public perception of voting against the resolution.

Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, spoke against the resolution, but ended up voting for it.

"It's like voting against guns and the NRA. Anyone listening to this can hear my explanation as to why I might vote against it," Christensen said. "But the majority of the people out there are going to interpret it [a 'no' vote] as Senator Christensen is for increased spending."

He ended up voting for the resolution. As did Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, who struggled with the proposal.

"I would like to rise and speak for and against this bill," he said with a laugh.

Senators will get one more crack at voting on the proposal, probably on Friday.

dmontero@sltrib.com

Twitter: @davemontero