One of the most significant responsibilities of the state Legislature is to craft and balance the state budget. The past few years this responsibility has been one the Legislature has engaged in with a heavy heart. Utah has escaped the worst of the recession, but that doesn't mean our revenues and programs haven't been impacted. We have been forced to cut, sometimes deeply, into programs and services in order to avoid spending into the red.
There is often speculation in the media about what governs the spending choices and priorities by the Legislature. The most important factor applied by legislators is the constitutional requirement to balance the budget. As its core, the state's budget is no more complicated that the average family budget, because the same basic principles apply. We don't spend more than we have in the bank. We pay for on-going expenses with on-going revenue sources. One-time money sources are used to fund one-time projects. Our borrowing (bonding) is done prudently and only for infrastructure (roads and buildings) projects.
Most importantly, we have not spent all of our money collected in the better times, but have instead saved some for a rainy day. When we must cut budgets, like the average family, we try to cut items that will have the least impact first.
At this point, the best fiscal estimate available show that the state will have $700 million less to spend in fiscal year 2010-2011 than in 2009-2010. Unfortunately our need for state-sponsored programs is not shrinking, but growing particularly in areas like Medicaid, Public Education and Higher Education. This disparity between needs and funding will be the dominant issue this session. As legislators, our very difficult task is to examine each and every program and then make cuts that will do the least harm to vulnerable populations. These are not cuts we want to make, but cuts we have to make in order to balance the budget. We can't spend money we don't have, no matter how worthy the program.
There are some silver linings to this otherwise dreary financial picture. We are starting to receive some indications that job losses are slowing and some industries are again starting to post profits. Utah has also thankfully not fallen as deeply into the recession as other parts of the country. Our unemployment is still the lowest in the region and we are well positioned to recover our economic strength.
Most importantly, the state did not dip into our rainy day funds during year one of the recession, which means that as the recession stretches into year two, we still have those funds available. The Legislature was criticized last year for not spending those funds, but I think we see now how important it was to consider the depth and length of the recession before tapping into our very finite savings account. Once we spend our rainy day funds, they are gone.
We are just one week into the session, and our appropriations committees have already been closely examining all the ways in which we spend your money to ensure we are protecting frontline programs and vulnerable populations. The Legislature will be using some of our $500 million rainy day funds this year to fill holes in Public Education and Medicaid, but this won't be enough to fill our entire $700 million shortfall. This means some programs will be cut, some services will be reduced and we will all have to further tighten our belts. Many are calling for tax increases, but in this economy, I feel we need to first tighten our belts and live within our means
Utahns can be assured that the Legislature will do its best to protect frontline programs and vulnerable populations as we make the necessary cuts to our budget. Our budget will balance and we will make wise use of our saving accounts to see us through the end of recession and beyond.
Rep. Brad Dee is the majority whip in the Utah State House of Representatives. He represents House District 11, which covers portions of Davis and Weber Counties.