Utah lawmakers sign off on initial budgets

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) House Speaker Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville, as the House repeals the tax package they passed last month during a special session, at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

Utah lawmakers approved a series of initial budget bills on Wednesday, ensuring that state government will continue to function in the coming fiscal year.

The so-called “base budgets” are largely reflective of last year’s spending levels, and provide something of a safety net as negotiations continue on the appropriation of new funding.

“Nineteen billion [dollars] down,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said following Wednesday’s votes. “One billion to go.”

This year’s legislative session began with the repeal of a controversial tax bill, which was approved in December and intended to generate additional sales tax revenue for the state. Legislative leaders said those changes — which cut taxes overall — were needed to provide lawmakers with additional spending flexibility, as the sales tax is unrestricted and can be spent on any government program.

[Read more: Utah Legislature repeals tax reform in pair of overwhelming votes]

The bulk of the state’s new revenue is generated by the income tax, which is constitutionally restricted for use in Utah’s public and higher education system. Wilson said Wednesday that he still expects the Legislature to enact a tax cut, but he declined to specify whether that would occur during the current legislative session.

“We will see a tax cut,” he said. “The timing of it, I think, is the question.”

Last month, lawmakers were told that the state has $726 million in new revenue from the Education Fund, and $128 million in new revenue from the general fund. Updated revenue estimates are expected later this month.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson told reporters Wednesday that the failure of the Legislature’s tax reform overhaul functioned as a sort of reset for the state budgeting process.

“The only thing it’s done is it’s caused us to go back and begin or start over from where we were,” said Stevenson, R-Layton, co-chairman of the Legislature’s main budget committee.

He predicted that it would be a relatively normal budgeting year for public education, which draws on plentiful income tax funding. However, he said, the general fund that supports most other parts of state government will be strapped for cash.

“It will be very close, and we’ll have to be very careful,” he said.

Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this article.