Tribune Editorial: Utah economy needs a transfusion, not a tourniquet

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) The Utah State Capitol is shown during the Utah Legislature's virtual special session Thursday, April 16, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

Members of the Utah Legislature, along with city councils and county commissions all over the state, are facing a series of difficult decisions on how to handle both the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic slowdown that has followed it.

Elected officials at all levels are faced with a situation where government is called to do more even as its primary sources of revenue — particularly the sales tax — shrink.

What all should keep in mind in this unusual time is that what the state, its economy and its people need is not a tourniquet. It’s a transfusion.

Advocates for education and for the poor and disabled are not wrong to fear that lawmakers may use the reduction in revenue as a justification for slashing spending in those areas. And cuts for the sake of cuts would, indeed, be an inhumane and inefficient approach.

Money spent on schools, nutrition and programs for the homeless and the ill does not just vaporize. It moves through the economy, providing income for workers and those they do business with, at a time when the whole of the economy really needs whatever boost it can get.

Choking off those funds in a panic would only make the state’s economic woes that much worse and its fiscal recovery that much further down the road.

At the same time, education and social programs make up such a large percentage of the state’s general fund that it is unrealistic to expect that there will be no reductions there, or anywhere else. The trick will be to make each dollar that is spent do as much as possible to meet the needs of the present moment.

For example, chances of public schools resuming their normal schedules and practices in the fall, and keeping them going that way all through a likely winter wave of coronavirus, are slim.

Targeting more state money to beefing up the ability of schools and families to use modern communications technology to full advantage would go a long way to making sure that no child is left behind for lack of a good computer or broadband internet connection.

Another way the state can revive, rather than embalm, the economy is to boost its spending on assistance to small businesses so that, even if businesses are temporarily closed or operating on a shoestring, they can make payroll and rent. That benefits the business owner, the employees and everyone’s landlord all at once.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson Thursday announced a $40 million grant program for small businesses that missed out on the federal Payroll Protection Program. Certainly the state can, and should, put up many times that amount.

The state has reserves it can and must tap. There is nearly $1 billion in its basic rainy day fund and other pots of money held in reserve for specific functions or allocated to projects that haven’t gotten off the drawing board yet.

Any highway or other construction projects that were to be funded with cash should be financed with bonds instead, freeing up the money for use now. Interest rates are at historic lows and debt financing would be better than canceling the projects and losing the jobs they would create.

And any money that had been earmarked for expressions of legislative petulance — lawsuits defending Utah coal or attacking endangered species — should be clawed back.

Utah is in a state of emergency, not a coma. Our government needs to take action, not just hide until this all goes away.

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