Gov. Gary Herbert is not a fan of speculating about a possible recession — a word he refused to say out loud last week during a legislative preview.
“We cannot use the R-word,” he said. “It is not an inevitability that we’re going to have some major downturn in the economy.”
But the term isn’t too strong for state Rep. Robert Spendlove, who’s also the economic and public policy officer for Zions Bank and former policy director for Herbert and for former Gov. Jon Huntsman.
“I don’t think a recession is imminent,” he said, “but what I think we are experiencing right now is an economic slowdown. Whether that turns into a recession … we just don’t know."
Spendlove, R-Sandy, isn’t alone. Other state lawmakers have also expressed uncertainty about the economic forecast. So while revenue projections show the state hauling in a massive surplus in the coming fiscal year, state lawmakers are bringing a wait-and-see attitude to budget discussions in the upcoming legislative session.
State Sen. Jerry Stevenson, who helps head the Executive Appropriations Committee, says he doesn’t believe officials can count on a repeat of the hefty revenue increase anticipated this year.
“I’m not a doomsayer, but something is going to happen,” Stevenson, R-Layton, said recently during a Utah Taxpayers Association conference also attended by the governor.
Spendlove says the national economy is sending mixed signals right now. Last month’s jobs report painted a rosy picture, and the stock markets soared after investors learned that the U.S. economy added 312,000 jobs and saw strong wage gains in December.
On the other hand, Spendlove said, consumer confidence seems to be faltering, with a volatile stock market underscoring the sense of economic uncertainty.
Spendlove said the ever-lengthening federal government shutdown and the trade dispute with China are intensifying the jitters.
James Feigenbaum, an economics professor at Utah State University, agrees with Spendlove that a slowdown could be on the way, despite some promising economic data.
“We probably are headed into a recession, but it’s based more on the signs and my instincts,” he said. “It’s not based on things I’m actually seeing in the economy. It’s also coming from the fact that we have a president that, if there is a slowdown, is likely to make things worse rather than better.”
However, Feigenbaum said the state’s diverse economy insulates it well from the impacts of a national or even international downturn. Utah demonstrated this resilience by weathering the Great Recession better than many other states across the nation, he said.
Spendlove says he’s not declaring a state of economic emergency, either.
“I would recommend the same thing to an individual or business or government in times of greater uncertainty, which is you need to be spending less, saving more and getting out of debt,” Spendlove said. “I think that’s something that would be wise for the state of Utah as well.”
That gets to the question facing lawmakers now: What should they do with a projected $1.3 billion surplus in the upcoming budget?
So far, it seems elected leaders are eyeing this potential windfall with a degree of suspicion.
“On paper, you would look at the budget this year and say, ‘We are really rolling,’” Utah Sen. Evan Vickers said last week.
But the state also looked flush with cash about a decade ago, in the lead-up to the Great Recession, the Cedar City Republican said.
“Then all of a sudden, all that money went away,” Vickers said during the taxpayers association legislative preview.
Staffers with the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst have also been cautioning lawmakers that only a sliver of the anticipated surplus — about $158 million of it — is actually in the state’s coffers at this point. The bulk of the $1.3 billion corresponds to projected revenues, which may or may not come in as anticipated.
One strategy for caution is to treat the extra money as a one-time bonus and spend it on projects rather than on adding personnel or other ongoing expenditures. For instance, lawmakers during the special session allocated $235 million of the projected surplus to pay in cash toward construction of the state’s new prison. The move could allow the state to avoid using bonds to fund the prison project and save the state in interest costs.
“We’re committed to being responsible with this revenue by building buildings with cash and making sure rainy day funds are bolstered,” incoming House Speaker Brad Wilson said.
Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he by no means believes Utah is on the precipice of another recession. But elected leaders should recognize that economies follow cycles of growth and shrinkage and take appropriate precautions, he said.
Rusty Cannon, vice president of the business-backed Utah Taxpayers Association, said Utah’s decision to cut taxes ahead of the last recession helped the state ride out the downturn. From 2005 to 2007, Utah’s elected leaders passed major tax reforms totaling more than $400 million, according to the association.
With that in mind, Cannon said Herbert and state legislators are smart to be considering tax relief now, as some are seeing an economic slowdown on the horizon.
Feigenbaum, on the other hand, said he’s not so convinced the timing is right for tax cuts.
“That’s a very dangerous game to play because, generally speaking, you want to cut the taxes after the recession has happened,” he said. “If the government has a big surplus, you want to have that surplus going into the recession to smooth things out.”