It didn’t take Utah GOP legislators long to find a few arguing points with Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s 2011-2012 recommended budget.
Herbert announced the budget a week ago today, and by last Monday there were concerns by his own majority party in the state House and Senate.
One of the major complaints made to me by GOP leaders is that Herbert’s Office of Planning and Budget included in the overall $11.9 billion plan $130 million in one-time tax surpluses based on a change in state law – specifically, making small businesses and self-employed individuals pay their state income tax on a quarterly basis.
Currently, Utah is one of only two states that don’t have quarterly payments for those groups.
The problem with Herbert’s actions, say GOP leaders, is that lawmakers some time ago started making Utah governor’s submit recommended budgets that are balanced under current law.
Lawmakers were tired of both Democratic and Republican governors building up expectations among state department bosses and special interest groups with a recommended budget that, in part, was based on a change in law – usually tax law.
And if legislators didn’t change the tax law – usually raising some tax or starting a new tax or changing collection dates – then the governors’ budgets would have to be trimmed back.
And special interest groups and their lobbyists didn’t like that.
In short – admittedly sometime with the media’s help in how such things were reported – legislators were “cutting” the governor’s budget.
Governors got to be the good guys in budget fights, lawmakers the bad guys.
I don’t know how long this has been going on – maybe since statehood in 1896.
But I saw plenty of it when I first started covering state agencies, the Legislature and politics back in the early 1980s.
Scott M. Matheson, a Democrat, was the governor at the time and Republicans controlled both the Senate and House.
So partisan politics played a part in Matheson recommending a “flush” budget that often contained tax or fee hikes or changes in tax law that Republican legislators didn’t like and weren’t going to do.
But even after GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter came into office in 1985 the legislators’ complaints about how the governor presented his budget continued.
And legislative leaders really got peeved a few times with former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt, who was a very popular guy in the 1990s when state tax revenues were growing and growing and there was plenty of money to spend. (Leavitt and legislator also cut taxes during those halcyon days, but state government still grew often by double digits per year.)
GOP leaders thought about all kinds of ways to stop the cycle of the governor recommending – in their minds – big budget increases and then legislators looking like Scrooge in their cutting back those recommendations.
I remember there was talk of making the governor recommend a “secret” budget to legislators, and not making that budget public until just before the general session started in January. But, of course, that wouldn’t work. Some legislator would just leak it to the media and everyone would look a little silly.
So, at some point, tired of what they considered budget games being played by the governor, legislators passed a law saying the chief executive had to recommend a balanced budget that didn’t require any changes in law to fully fund it.
(The Legislature, under the state Constitution, must adopt a balanced budget – although it doesn’t have to remain balanced throughout the fiscal year. In fact, in recent years the Legislature has had to be called into special sessions by the governor to make further budget cuts just so the spending and tax collections were close at fiscal year’s end.)
And, so, several GOP leaders are not happy that Herbert’s new budget recommendation is, technically, $130 million out of balance if lawmakers don’t adopt the quarterly income tax collection changes.
Worse, legislative budget staffers disagree with Herbert’s budget office that quarterly income tax collections would even bring in $130 million. The legislative economists think the change would only bring in $117 million.
So, even if lawmakers went with quarterly collection payments, the governor’s budget would still be $13 million short.
Now, despite these differences, there is still a good working relationship between Herbert, his budgeters, and legislative leaders and their budget staff.
I remember when a few GOP leaders would openly criticize Leavitt’s budgets and his economists. The grumbling is more civil now.
Hey, back in the Matheson days the governor’s office and the Legislative Fiscal Analyst wouldn’t even agree on tax collect revenue estimates – so Matheson’s budgets were hardly taken seriously. At least they have, mostly, consensus revenue estimates now.
And even in the Leavitt days, during the Legislature’s budget subcommittee hearings the legislative budget staffers wouldn’t even pass out the governor’s recommendations in the big-ring binders the GOP and Democratic committee members worked off of.
Leavitt’s budget staff would have to come to the budget hearings with their own copies of the governor’s budget and pass them out to the legislators and public in attendance.
Even further back, Matheson wouldn’t even deliver copies of his budget to lawmakers. I’m serious, large boxes of budget books were put out in the foyer of the governor’s office on the December legislative interim day and legislators – even leaders like the House speaker and Senate president – were expected to come down and pick out of the box their own copy of Matheson’s budget.
Budget fights were legendary back then.
To get more “money” for education, I remember in one open GOP Senate caucus (Senate majority caucuses are closed now), a motion was made by one Republican senator to accept Matheson’s revenue numbers – which were larger than the Legislature’s own fiscal analyst’s numbers – and it passed. The poor budget director sat there with a stunned look on his face as his own legislative bosses rejected his revenue estimate.
The next day cooler heads prevailed and the Senate Republicans formally went back to their own budget director’s numbers.
But through the years Republican legislators were just sick of always cutting desired state programs while governors looked like saviors to the poor, sick and those seeking more money for education.
My, how times have changed.
GOP leaders this year are not shy at all about cutting state government even more than Herbert suggests. And now the leaders are saying that Herbert’s quarterly tax payments would hurt small businesses, even as businesses are struggling to get back on their feet as we come out of the recession.
And it is the GOP leaders who are saying that Herbert is too free and easy in spending another $100 million out of the state’s Rainy Day Fund. And how they are the fiscal conservatives in wanting to have a “structural deficit” equal to the Rainy Day balance.
And so Herbert isn’t looking like the good guy, but the big spender, while GOP legislative conservatives are defenders of the public purse, advocate of Utah’s small businessmen.
And all this only one week after Herbert’s budget announcement.
Well, hang in there governor. February revenue estimates will come. And if they are $50 million or $100 million higher than December’s all will be forgiven.
But I do wonder what GOP leaders may do next to force the governor – no matter who it is – to recommend balanced budgets that don’t require any changes to state law.