Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has been judicious in the use of his veto pen. He negated only four bills that passed the 2011 Legislature. Of those, one of them, SB229, raised eyebrows because it had passed by an overwhelming 60-10 in the House and 24-4 in the Senate.
And yet in that instance the governor's pen struck a blow for future state lawmakers who might have come to rue the day the bill was passed. We hope they won't rue the day the veto was overridden, although House and Senate leaders have called an override session for next week, confident they can do so.
SB229 would mandate that 30 percent of all future growth in state tax revenues be earmarked for transportation projects. This would include the construction of new highways and freeways, expansion projects and maintenance work. It would, as the chair of the State Board of Regents, David Jordan, recently wrote on these pages, add millions of dollars a year to the $295 million already committed each year from sales taxes to highways, as well as the millions collected from gas taxes and vehicle registrations.
No one can question the need for more highway funding in a state that is growing faster than nearly every other state in the union. The number of miles each person drives in Utah has increased at an even faster clip than population. According to the Utah Department of Transportation, the state's population grew by 47 percent between 1990 and 2007, while vehicle miles traveled grew by 71 percent. Despite this, the highway system's capacity increased by only 4 percent.
Utahns may well ask themselves why, given these figures, state lawmakers haven't voted on their own to allocate the kind of money they propose to force future legislatures to allocate. The answer is twofold. First, they are dead set against raising any taxes, including gasoline taxes. These were last raised in 1998. This reticence is unfortunate, given how the gasoline tax is as close to a user fee for drivers as the state could find. Funding roads by adding a bit more to the cost of the fuel needed to use those roads makes much more sense than tapping general state revenues.
The second reason is that each year's group of lawmakers has to weigh all the needs of the state against each other. Future lawmakers may or may not allocate 30 percent of growth to transportation, depending on the merits of needs in public or higher education, corrections, social services or other compelling state functions. A lawmaker's job is to allocate resources based on legitimate public priorities, not to sit back and let the money flow according to an arbitrary funding formula written in law.
Other states are learning this lesson the hard way. California has allocated so much of its budget by law that its lawmakers control only about 15 percent of annual expenditures, which means they have few options for handling their current budget crisis.
Utah is fiscally sound because, among other things, it has retained discretionary control over expenditures. Even so, the state already allocates all income tax revenue for public and higher education. It would not be good public policy to earmark more funds for a specific public service, no matter how deserving.
Some lawmakers say the state has unfairly raided the Transportation Investment Fund in recent years for higher education building projects, and this bill would restore fiscal balance. But it is lawmakers themselves who set priorities and pass spending bills.
The governor was right to use his veto pen on SB229. While it is possible to project future spending allocations, it is impossible to project future spending needs. If lawmakers override this veto, future state leaders are likely to regret it.