The midpoint of the 2021 Utah Legislature is later this week, which means lawmakers are finalizing their priority spending lists for your tax dollars before the final budget is approved in the coming weeks.
Legislative leaders will vote on the appropriation requests later this week.
Lawmakers expect to have a lot of money to spend this year as Utah’s economy is rebounding much more quickly than originally forecast. Utah’s unemployment rate is currently 3.6%, fifth-lowest in the nation, so income tax collections didn’t fall as dramatically as expected due to the pandemic. Sales tax revenue also has trended ahead of projections, primarily due to online sales.
The largest pot of money for lawmakers left to spend this year is one-time funding. The most recent projections showed about $1 billion of unexpected tax revenue available, mostly due to federal stimulus funds flowing into the state. Legislative budget leaders think federal spending to combat the coronavirus pandemic resulted in $11 billion to $12 billion in economic activity in Utah.
There’s fear that a lot of federal money is artificially boosting what appears to be ongoing tax revenue, so lawmakers are playing it cautiously by moving about $500 million to the one-time revenue column as a hedge against the possibility that money won’t be there next year.
As of last week’s appropriations deadline, lawmakers made about $377 million in one-time funding requests and $85 million from the ongoing cash.
Among those one-time requests:
$5.9 million to pay for a new Department of Public Safety helicopter.
$200,000 to modernize the lighting system at the Hale Center Theater in Orem.
$175,000 for the Utah Open golf tournament.
$100,000 for a World War II memorial.
$100,000 for the “Warriors over the Wasatch” Utah air show.
The budget picture could get even better when updated revenue numbers are revealed later this month. Legislative leaders believe the amount of one-time money available could balloon to close to $2 billion as the economic picture continues to brighten. The stimulus bill Congress passed in December is just starting to take hold, and President Joe Biden’s massive $1.9 trillion coronavirus spending package is on track to be approved next month. If those revenue numbers jump, expect lawmakers to shift even more money from ongoing to one-time money.
Even though it looks like lawmakers are flush with cash for next year, that’s not necessarily the case.
“There’s always more requests than money,” said Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, who is the House chair of the Legislature’s top budget committee.
“We’ll need to be very wise in how we put this budget together as we go through this recession,” added Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton and Senate chair of budget panel.
“If you look at our numbers compared to the rest of the country, we look a lot better than a lot of other states. The reason for that is we’ve been very careful about how we’ve gone through the process,” says Stevenson.
Lawmakers have already committed $400 million in additional funding to boost public education, including $120 million for cash bonuses to teachers and staffers. That money was folded into the base budget, which was approved in the first weeks of the 2021 session.
Ahead are decisions about the hundreds of millions in appropriations requests and lawmakers are also considering whether to spend half a billion dollars on buildings, mostly on college and university campuses.
Legislators are also eyeing hundreds of millions of dollars in other construction projects, including $350 million to double-track the FrontRunner commuter rail, a number of water projects and long-delayed maintenance at Utah state parks.
“There’s a lot of desire to make a big lift there,” says Moss. “How much do we pay for this out of one-time money is the question we have to answer.”
Despite a seeming abundance of cash, there will likely be a push to use bonding for at least some of those projects.
Last but not least, there’s about $80 million available for tax cuts that lawmakers have been hoping to pass since the 2019 session. Prior to the session, Senate President Stuart Adams called 2021 the “year of the tax cut.” That’s likely to come to fruition with plans to expand tax credits for retirees on Social Security, fixing the state’s dependent exemption which was impacted by the Trump tax cuts of 2017 and reducing the tax burden on military retirees.
“There are some people who want us to spend that money on other things,” said Moss, but that’s unlikely to happen.