Utah Gov. Spencer Cox schlepped his entourage, his security detail, a contingent of the state’s news media, a podium, flags, a few large charts and graphs and copies of his shiny new 176-page “One Utah: Fiscal Year 2023 Budget Recommendations” book all the way out to Antelope Island Tuesday to announce the details of his agenda for the legislative session to come.
He really needn’t have bothered.
As is the case with most executive budgets at the federal, state and local level, all those tables of figures, pie charts and policy narratives are, at most, a starting point for the real budgeting, which is done by the legislative branch of government.
Sometimes a governor’s spending plan will be taken seriously as an opening bid in a series of tough and detailed negotiations. Other times it is derisively described as something that will hold up the short leg of the table in the legislative committee room.
The latter is likely to be the case in Utah in the legislative session that begins next month. Though some of Cox’s ideas may, and deserve to, survive the sausage-making process, overall the budget is a codification of the status quo, with more money (a lot of it from the federal government) tossed in the direction of more of the same.
Early in the budget document, and in his meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board, Cox emphasized one of the few actual policy innovations contained in his plan. That’s an overly complicated scheme he calls a “refundable grocery tax credit.” He calls it that even though the only relationship it would have to the state’s sales tax on groceries is that it is his alternative to what will be this session’s drive to eliminate that tax.
The governor has the charts and graphs to back up his claim that such a credit would put more money into the pockets of those most in need of help, not only compared to an elimination of the grocery tax (favored on the left) but also when compared to an income tax rate cut (pushed by the right). But it is more likely that either, or both, of those alternatives will be what comes to pass. Either would be easier to understand than a complex process faced by people without accountants and the uncertainty of how the state would find eligible households that don’t file tax returns at all.
When it comes to making a list of the parts of state responsibility that need the most attention, Cox is on beam.
Like governors past, he puts public education at the top of his list, recommending a 5% hike in the per-pupil allocation school districts receive, funding all-day kindergarten for families that want it and picking up the check for the waiver of school fees, relieving individual school districts of that cost. Total education spending for fiscal 2023 would approach $1 billion.
The problem is that it’s $1 billion spent in, mostly, the same old ways, with priorities that will vary from school board to school board and won’t do enough to pull our students back to where they were before the pandemic disrupted everything. Which wasn’t all that good in terms of achievement gaps and falling test scores.
Water is also a concern. The governor’s budget takes note of the need to preserve the Great Salt Lake, measure the amount of water use that goes unmetered and take some action to preserve both agriculture and natural wetlands.
But money doesn’t necessarily mean the necessary rethink of how this very dry state manages its water. It certainly does’t face the huge share of our H2O slurped up by vast acreages of alfalfa, almost all of it grown for export, the same as shipping our water to China.
It’s also scary that the budget includes $25 million for the “rehabilitation” of Utah Lake. Scary because it sounds like Cox may have bought in to what sounds like a colossal boondoggle, proposed by a group that wants to dredge that lake, build islands, and build houses on those islands, all in the name of water quality. A group making a fuzzy claim of already having $6 billion in private investments lined up, but that won’t say who those investors are or just what new technology will make their vision a reality.
There’s some admission that climate change is real. Money for charging stations for electric cars, public transit and more air-quality monitors. But no apparent realization that Utah has the potential to be the very profitable nexus of beginning a shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.
There’s also an attempt to catch up to the need to provide truly affordable housing and other services to the homeless. But even the $228 million in that bucket won’t be enough to catch up to years of half-hearted efforts, efforts that left a few service centers still mired in debt and insufficient funding.
The problem is not that Cox has bad priorities. He doesn’t. But he isn’t using his influence as the author of the first solid step in the state budget process to make some visionary changes in the way those priorities are accomplished. There’s little here that will rouse the public to insist that the Legislature step away from business as usual and move Utah to a sustainable future.