Legislative three-card Monte: Roads win, everyone else loses

Jan 10 2012 - 12:56am

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We ran a scary story last week about how much highways are going to cost Utah over the next 30 years. The tab is $69 billion, a chunk of that just in the Top of Utah.

Another story the week before listed millions of dollars involving a Top of Utah wish list by the Utah Department of Transportation.

The money, despite $43 billion in projected revenue, is not there. Either Utah finds more cash, or Utah will have $26 billion worth of chuckholes and unbuilt roads.

That's a lot of chuckholes, but no matter what other needs the state has, you can bet Utah will find every penny of that $26 billion.

The fix is in.

Senate Bill 229, passed last year over Gov. Gary Herbert's veto, will bring in a chunk. The bill snatches 30 percent of the growth of sales taxes for highways.

SB 229 shows how the Legislature operates a neat shell game to starve other programs and fund roads.

The Legislative Fiscal Analyst says SB 229 will generate $59 million in 2013, the first year it is in force. That will grow until the bill takes 17 percent of total sales taxes, which are currently about $1.5 billion. At that level, $255 million more a year would go into highways.

Notice, though, the Legislature didn't raise any taxes to fund that $255 million.

Other state programs will not get that $255 million. The state's system of higher education was a strong opponent of SB 229 for that very reason.

Higher ed has lost at this game before.

Utah's K-12 schools used to get every penny of state income tax. In 1996, a constitutional amendment was passed to share income taxes with Utah's higher education system.

The sales pitch was that universities would get more money. Subsequent studies by the Utah Foundation show universities didn't. The Legislature gave higher education more income tax revenue, but less general fund revenue.

Total higher education funding stayed about the same.

The beneficiary of the income tax shell game was the general fund, which lawmakers spend as they see fit, such as for highways.

Highways are sacred.

In late 2008, at the height of the housing market bust, Gov. Jon Huntsman took the unimaginable action of suspending nearly 60 highway projects. You could almost hear road contractors having heart attacks over lost business.

Our congressional representatives say federal stimulus funds don't create jobs, but when Huntsman suspended those projects, Utah's lawmakers screamed about lost jobs.

Huntsman restored the projects when federal stimulus funds rolled in.

Meanwhile, Utah's government employees are four years without a pay raise. Social programs are shrinking. The state Board of Regents released a report Monday saying Utah's eight universities are underfunded by $140 million a year.

We could raise taxes for roads -- the per-gallon gasoline tax hasn't budged in years -- but higher taxes are a nonstarter.

People will pay whatever it takes to fuel their 12 mpg pickup truck, but fund more or better roads for it to drive on? Never!

I have this fantasy where we don't pay that extra $26 billion. We tell UDOT, "Here's $43 billion. Do your best."

If Interstate 15 between Ogden and Brigham City doesn't get that new $50 million lane, or U.S. 89 in Kaysville doesn't get that new $45 million interchange, so be it. People may finally demand better mass transit just to survive.

Speaking of which, tonight the Ogden City Council will hear a presentation on the possibility of a trolley car in Ogden. It's one option of many.

Transit costs money to build, and you pay a fare to ride, but you leave your car at home.

Fewer cars mean fewer roads, and we could all be less scared.

Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. You can call him at 801-625-4232 or email him at ctrentelman@standard.net. He also blogs at www.standard.net.

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