Matthew Weinstein: The Legislature’s dilemma: Invest in Utah’s future or cut taxes?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matthew Weinstein, MPP State Priorities Partnership Director Voices for Utah Children speaks during a news conference on the State Capitol steps with a coalition of advocates for critical priorities that Utahns support but that the Legislature has not been able to fund because of a tight General Fund balance, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

This past week a remarkable thing happened. Fifteen Utah nonprofits that had never worked together before issued a unified call for the Utah Legislature to “Invest in Utah’s Future” rather than engaging in yet another round of tax cuts. These organizations advocate for very different Utah priorities: Cleaner air. Better public education. More affordable housing. Less hunger and homelessness. Disability services. Healthier children and adults.

Yet the advocates all have one thing in common: For years and years, the Utah Legislature has said no to their funding proposals. Why? Because the resources just aren’t there — even though the proposals would save Utah money in the long run and make us a more prosperous state. Is it the Legislature’s fault that the money just isn’t there to make these investments in Utah’s future?

For years now, Utah’s legislators and governors have engaged in round after round of tax cuts, to the point that our overall level of taxation, including everything we pay to state and local government in Utah, is lower than it’s been in decades as a percentage of our incomes. This is true at all income levels (though it’s also true that the largest tax cuts in dollar terms have gone to the highest-income Utahns).

These findings were confirmed last year in reports from the Utah State Tax Commission and the Utah Foundation. Most legislators probably think that these record low taxes are cause for celebration. And many Utahns undoubtedly agree. But many may also have mixed feelings when they consider that as a result of tax cut after tax cut after tax cut, there are urgent challenges we are unable to address:

• Our high school graduation rates are behind national averages for nearly every racial and ethnic group, including our two largest, whites and Latinos.

• We are experiencing growing majority-minority and rich-poor gaps in our education system, such as a gap between White and Latino graduation rates that is larger than nationally.

• Our college graduation rate has fallen behind the national average among our younger generation (ages 25-34).

• Air quality is among the worst in the nation for most Utahns.

• Homelessness and housing affordability have reached crisis levels, even as we near the peak of the economic cycle.

• Our child uninsured rate is above the national average – and worst in the nation for Latino children.

• Infrastructure investment has fallen behind by billions of dollars.

… and the list goes on and on. One of the best pieces of advice out there says that when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Yet the Utah Legislature is reportedly considering yet another round of tax cuts this year, proving that tax cuts are truly the junk food of election year policy making — instantly gratifying in the short term but leaving Utah with headaches for years to come.

One of the greatest thinkers Utah ever produced, the recently deceased business guru Clayton Christensen, wrote a decade ago in the Harvard Business Review, “If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification.” Are the dangers of short-term thinking any less when it comes to government policy?

Past generations of Utahns established a record of making sacrifices for the long-term betterment of our state. What about us today? Are we willing to live up to their example and delay gratification for Utah’s long-term good?

Matthew Weinstein

Matthew Weinstein is fiscal policy director at Voices for Utah Children.