It can be difficult, given the depressing nature of our recession, to find many silver linings to buoy our spirits. Perhaps the only thing one can do when faced with a set of challenging circumstances is to think of the lessons this moment in time will teach us so we will not have to repeat this particularly unpleasant experience again.
Utah has traditionally been a very fiscally conservative state, but the recession has reinforced to us the wisdom of fiscal conservatism and living within in our means. It was very difficult during the years of tremendous state growth to stem the desire to expand government programs and services.
Indeed, state spending grew 17 percent from 2007 to 2009. I remember sitting in House caucus meetings during the "good years" as we contemplated how we would spend the windfall of cash. Everyone wanted a piece of the money and every program made an excellent case for receiving more funding.
Turning down a worthy request for funding was very politically unpopular. Thankfully, we resisted the urge to spend every dime, and stored some away in savings.
So what have we learned? Lesson number one is to save even more money for a rainy day. While we have $600 million in our two rainy day funds, it is not nearly enough considering our total state budget is nearly $11 billion. Even after cutting budgets last year, we find we are still nearly $700 million in the red for the next budget year.
We must also remember that the rainy day funds are one-time money, meaning once spent the supply is gone. We must never use one-time dollars for any on-going programs.
Going forward, I would urge that we have even more money in our rainy day funds so we are better prepared for another financial crisis.
A rainy day fund with $1 billion dollars would provide a much better safety net and also throw off enough interest to help fund some ongoing programs. A savings account of this size could not be accomplished overnight, but will take a dedicated effort over several years to rebuild our reserves.
We will need to have the fortitude once good times return to remember this lesson and not get caught up in the rush to spend.
Lesson number two would be to slow the growth of government programs and spending. When times were good, we were able to adequately fund all our programs and departments, but a two-year recession has rocked our ability to continue the level of program funding and services we provided just two years ago.
We find ourselves overextended and having to make some very painful decisions about which programs and services to cut and which to protect. It is imperative that we think about long-term sustainability when we allow new programs to join our repertoire and that we properly factor for the growth in population and inflation for existing programs.
It is, after all, when times are tough that people need government services the most. We need to structure ourselves so critical, frontline services can endure equally well in good funding times and bad. It is important we make our decisions not with the next election in mind but with the next generation in mind.
Lesson number three involves allowing some spending and cutting decisions to be made on a micro, rather than macro, level. Government is often criticized for making big picture decisions at the expense of the individual. The Legislature made the decision last year to leave some of the budget-cutting decisions to the various departments.
We thought the departments would know best how to protect critical functions while trimming less critical areas. This process worked fairly well once all the departments and school districts understood the gravity of the situation. It is my hope that this new understanding between the Legislature and the departments can continue so we can continue to make wise spending decisions no matter the economic climate.
I know it is not just government that found itself overextended and underprepared for the recession. Families and businesses also have found themselves in similar circumstances. I would urge all of us to examine our individual finances with an eye toward the lessons that will keep us from having to repeat this experience. I know I am.
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.