Nine hundred and thirty-two million dollars.
That’s how much cash the state of Utah has sitting in its Rainy Day Fund reserve account. It also has numerous other pots and kettles and rabbit holes full of other funds — taxpayers money, all of it — intended and reserved for other long-term or special projects and programs.
All of it seemed like a good idea at the time.
But times have changed.
It is time to put that money to work, now, in large amounts, as a sort of economic ventilator to keep things working and give us a chance to recover.
Facing, with the rest of the world, the coronavirus threat, Utahns have mostly done the wise and rational thing of shutting down a great deal of what we do. Schools closed. Nonessential shops shut. Public events canceled. Sports seasons suspended.
It is all necessary to do the one thing we can do, at least until someone comes up with a vaccine or proven treatment, and that’s to starve the horrid virus out by denying it the only form of sustenance it has. Your lungs.
The problem is that, as we starve the pandemic, we are also starving a huge portion of our economy. A wave of people out of work through no fault of their own, or of their employers. Families and businesses unable to make the rent or pay the mortgage.
The premature end to the ski season and the drying up of the rest of the state’s tourism industry has, all by itself, cost the state nearly all of the $26 million per day it used to pump into our economy.
Congress has put up some $2 trillion in emergency spending for everything from hospitals to direct payments to households. It sounds like an awful lot of money, but already a second wave is being considered to try to keep the national economy from freezing up.
The Utah response, so far, has been far from adequate. Gov. Gary Herbert has launched a program of zero-interest bridge loans to businesses, funded with a paltry $8 million or so in money borrowed from other economic development accounts.
Our political and business leaders are also encouraging Utahns to take advantage of the various federal programs. As they should. But the cash, as with most federal efforts, will take time to arrive.
There is no question that the Utah economy, along with that of the nation and the world, is facing its greatest threat since the Great Depression. The question is how well we will ride that wave and how long it will take to rebuild when, inevitably (probably), we stumble again into the light, rub our weary eyes and look around at the work that is to be done and the great pent-up demand to be met.
Rather than hoarding its cash like so much toilet paper, the state should be pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy, in ways that benefit the broadest possible number of people. Enough money to cycle through the hands of many to the benefit of all.
Banks and larger businesses, having benefited greatly in recent times from tax cuts and incredibly low interest rates, have a duty to help as well. Offering bridge loans. Keeping workers on the payroll. Understanding the fact that customers and tenants aren’t being irresponsible when they can’t pay.
The last thing we need now is a wave of evicted tenants, foreclosed homeowners and bankrupt businesses, forced onto the streets in a way that would destroy all our efforts at the physical distancing that is still our most effective biological weapon.
It’s time to act.