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Utah has thinnest slice of budget pie

Published: Thursday, July 23 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

When it comes to dividing the fat federal budget pie, Utah now receives the thinnest slice of any state.

The federal government spent $6,255 per resident in Utah in 2008, dead last among all states, according to a Census Bureau report released Thursday. The spending ranges from salaries of local federal workers to contracts with local companies, Medicare bills, Social Security payments, running military bases and much more.

The slice for Utahns was a third smaller than the average $9,042 that the federal government spent per person nationally in 2008 as the recession was gaining steam, and before the stimulus spending bill was passed.

Utah also dropped from next-to-last in 2007 to dead last in 2008. That happened as the average spent in Utah per resident dropped by $231 in that time. Meanwhile nationally, average spending per resident increased by $703.

Among reasons that Utah may be last are its young average age, so it receives less for such big-ticket items as Social Security and Medicare payments for the elderly. Also, its economy had been doing better than most areas, so it received less in such things as unemployment benefits and food stamps.

Also, Utah has a relatively small congressional delegation, which is four-fifths Republican amid a Democratic majority. It also has only one member, Sen. Bob Bennett, on an appropriations committee that divides the budget pie. All of that may hurt in the fight for federal money.

Freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who was not in Congress in 2008, the year studied in the new report, says earmarking money for home-state projects by bigger and more powerful delegations is among reasons "we certainly pay more than our fair share" in Utah.

He said, "There are a lot of shenanigans that happen in the earmark process as presently constituted." Still, he says earmarking "represents less than 1 percent of overall funding expenditures" — so demographic reasons are probably the key explanation behind why Utah receives less than most states.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, the only Democrat in the Utah delegation, said, "If you look at a pie chart of federal spending overall, Medicare and Social Security dominate. … Utah demographically, by a long way, has the largest proportion of young people of any state. I think that overwhelms all of the other variables out there."

Likewise, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said because Utah has a young population, "it follows that it does not collect as much federal funds from social programs as other states do. Utah's low unemployment and Utahns' healthy lifestyle are also factors."

Hatch added, "A more accurate indicator of Utah's congressional clout would be to look at the funds the state receives for defense, transportation and other non-welfare related spending where Utahns get a more fair share, as we've seen with new transit lines, expanded highway infrastructure, airport improvements and increased workloads at our military installations."

Pam Perlich, a research economist at the University of Utah, said the state's big percentage of children and smaller numbers of elderly hurt in another way.

"The federal government pays for programs for the elderly, but education is funded mostly by the states and local governments. Because we have a lot of children, a heavier proportion of local budgets goes to public education than in other states."

In other words, a lot of money sent to the federal government for the elderly doesn't come back to the state. Meanwhile, Utah has to pay more local taxes for schools.

Perlich also noted that more Utahns are married, and stay married. "Poverty is associated with single-parent households with kids. Because we have among the highest rates of those married and a low divorce rate, that tends to keep poverty rates down."

It also holds down federal payments for such things as food stamps or unemployment benefits, compared to other states.

The new report also showed that Utah ranked dead last among the states in per capita spending for federal retirement and disability payments; No. 49 of 50 in other direct payments (such as unemployment and food stamps); No. 47 in grants; No. 26 in procurement; and No. 17 in salaries and wages of local federal employees.

The report says Utah has 0.9 percent of the overall U.S. population, and received 0.6 percent of all federal money spent in the states.

The report estimated the federal government spent $17.1 billion in Utah in 2008. Of that, $5.3 billion went to retirement and disability programs; $2.8 billion to other direct payments; $3.5 billion to grants; $3 billion to procurement; and $2.5 billion to salaries and wages of local federal workers.

The new report also estimated how much of the federal spending occurred in each county. Counties that had the most were: Salt Lake County, $6 billion; Davis (home of the large Hill Air Force Base), $2.7 billion; Weber, $1.6 billion; Utah, $1.4 billion; and Box Elder, $860 million.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com

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