Utah’s Debt at $2.5 Billion

You got $962 in your back pocket?

If you’re in a family of four, how about $3,848 in the savings account?

Yep, $962 for every man, woman and child in Utah – that’s how much state government has indebted you with its general obligation, or GO, bonding.

And, in theory, if the state defaulted on its bonds, which it won’t, a judge could order you to pay that $962.

That may sound like a lot – all told nearly $2.5 billion in debt, with principal payments of $331 million a year.

But Utah, while a large state geographically, is rather small in population and state government spending compared the really big – and in debt – states to the west and east of us.

So Utah keeps its AAA bond rating – the highest given — while lawmakers are warned they should reduce indebtedness over the next few years.

State legislative leaders got an update Tuesday afternoon by their budget staff on just how much the state owes, and how long it will take to pay off the already-issued general obligation bonds.

And there are some impressive numbers here:

— $2.48 billion in GO bonds outstanding.

— If the Legislature issues no more bonds at all, the final payoff won’t be until 2029.

But that’s unlikely since legislators routinely issue new bonds every general session (although no GO bonds were issued in the 2015 Legislature.)

Each July 1 the state makes an annual principal payment on outstanding bonds.

— $331 million is how much the state paid two weeks ago.

— $428 million is how much the state will pay in 2015 for principal AND interest – for just like your credit cards, interest is paid on the outstanding balance.

Almost all of the debt – the bonds – are issued to pay for big building projects and road construction and replacement.

Several years ago Utah paid for the complete rebuilding of I-15 in Utah County without any federal funds.

And that was a multi-billion project.

When all those bonds were being issued, Utah was creeping up toward the constitutional debt limit – but never reached it.

Now that Utah has rebounded from the Great Recession, each year hundreds of millions of dollars in extra tax revenue is flowing into state coffers.

And lawmakers and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert are bonding less – enjoying it more.

They are using surplus funds to pay for roads and many state buildings.

(Revenue bonds are another matter – and the state continues to issue those for specific revenue-producing projects, like university buildings whose costs come from donations and student tuition and fees.)

The Legislature issues bonding authority, and the specific department heads decide, along with the state treasurer, when to sell the bonds on the market.

Utah is one of a few states with an AAA bond rating – the highest. And, thus, Utah gets good – or low – interest rates when it sells state GO bonds.

Some recent Utah Department of Transportation road-building projects ended up costing less than estimated.

Accordingly, the state didn’t issue over $63 million in bonds that the Legislature authorized in 2009.

Tuesday, the Executive Appropriations Committee – made up of House and Senate leaders, both political parties – voted to rescind the authorization for those $63 million in unissued bonds.

More than $537 million in bonds have been authorized by lawmakers – but as yet not issued.

Most of that comes in borrowing for the future construction of a new state prison – site yet to be decided by legislators and Herbert.

Some states are in debt to the tune of tens billions of dollars.

And have issued highway bonds that won’t be paid off for 50 years.

Utah – made up of conservative GOP legislators – hasn’t done that.

Utah usually pays off building bonds in six years (how many of you have a 30-year mortgage on your house?).

And pays off highway bonds in 15 years.

Now, the Utah Constitution sets a debt limit. It is 1.5 percent of the value of all private property in the state.

Historically, lawmakers have used a rough yardstick and have tried to keep state debt at 45 percent of the constitutional ceiling.

But bonding for Utah County’s I-15, the Great Recession (where lawmakers were trimming budgets and had no tax surpluses) pushed bonding beyond that 45 percent goal.

The national bond rating agencies don’t like Utah’s debt being as high as it is per person and compared to the total value of property in the state.

So legislators are working toward reducing the state’s GO bonding levels – and may reach that 45 percent level in the next couple of years.