Commentary: With an avalanche of money, can Utah maintain its fiscal discipline?

When I was a young reporter first covering the Legislature in the late 1970s, I learned about the state budget and about fiscal discipline from old-school legislators like LeRay McAllister, Norm Bangerter and Franklin Knowlton.

I watched and listened with fascination as a parade of state agencies, local governments, individuals, non-profits and interest groups came before the appropriations subcommittees seeking funding. I quickly learned an important fact of legislative budgeting — there are always an unlimited number of good causes that really could help people in meaningful ways.

I watched as some subcommittee members, hearing the pleas of groups seeking money, become advocates for those groups and agencies, wanting to support good causes. Often, the funding was included in budgets recommended to the Executive Appropriations Committee (also known as the Hatchet Committee). 

I often found myself becoming quite sympathetic to the budget requests. After all, what’s a few hundred thousand dollars, or even a few million, in such a big budget? These were good causes and, surely, the state could afford it.

But most of those funding requests didn’t make it all the way through the legislative process. The “Hatchet Committee” was strictly disciplined in what it approved for the final appropriations bill. Only the critically important funding requests, the best of the best, survived.

Despite the value of the proposed programs, the lawmakers had to balance the budget. They weren’t afraid to say no, even if they were accused of being callous and hard-hearted. There were an unlimited number of good causes. But there wasn’t an unlimited money supply.

And, somehow, the state survived without funding all those good causes. 

Truth is, those highly disciplined legislators and governors laid the foundation for the prosperity that Utah enjoys today. Utah’s leaders still exercise excellent fiscal discipline, enabling low taxes and a great business environment.

Today, I’m confident our legislative leadership and the governor are still committed to financial discipline. However, it’s a lot harder with unprecedented amounts of money flowing into state coffers from a booming economy and a federal government that is borrowing, printing and spending unfathomable amounts of money – trillions of dollars – with a significant amount flowing to state and local governments.    

By one estimate, the state could have $3 billion more to spend in the next session than it had this year. That’s an amazing increase from one year to the next. And the amount could be a lot more if the president and the Democrats get additional spending bills passed in Congress.

I sincerely worry that the avalanche of cash could weaken the state’s traditional fiscal discipline. Certainly, all that federal money should not be built into on-going programs. The federal funding could fade away in the future, leaving the state to pay the costs or slash programs – always a difficult thing to do.

I’m confident that Utah leaders will not follow the example of the federal government, which has abandoned all sense of fiscal probity. I worry that an entire generation of American citizens and leaders are being taught that debt doesn’t matter, that money is easy to come by in government, and everyone can have anything they want.

Federal money always comes with strings attached, with increased bureaucracy and overhead costs. There’s also the grave danger that more money and more programs means government, more and more, takes the place of families, community and non-profits.

Let me be clear that I’m not suggesting the federal money be rejected or returned. I would recommend doing so if it would actually reduce the deficit or produce more fiscal restraint in Congress. But Utah refusing the money will just mean it gets used elsewhere, probably in a less disciplined way.

And I’m not necessarily suggesting a big tax cut. This is an opportunity to invest in infrastructure projects that will benefit our rapidly-growing state for decades to come. Badly-needed water conservation and development projects are going to be very expensive.

And I believe we can become the nation’s No. 1 education state with wise and careful investments in an innovative, next-generation education system. That will cost a lot of money.

Having a lot of money will be a good thing if it is wisely and prudently invested in things that make a real difference for future generations. It will be a bad thing if money is tossed at everyone’s favorite cause and project, bloating the bureaucracy and obligating taxpayers long into the future.

It will take great wisdom and discipline to properly spend copious amounts of unexpected money. It’s a more difficult task than just saying no when money is tight.

Here’s hoping lawmakers rise to the occasion.