If we asked 20 special interest groups at the state Legislature to sit around a table, then dumped a pile of cash in the middle of them, they would fight to the political death over every last penny. Not one of them would ever say, "We'll make do with what we have," or "You know, some of our programs are actually ineffective."
That tax-and-spend attitude among special interest groups is called the "spending bias."
When California gutted its constitutional spending limit in 1990, the state budget went wild. During economic upswings that state's spending has seen massive increases, and during economic downturns the pain of cuts has been unbearable. The most recent downturn has led to a shocking $18 billion cut in public education, eliminating 20,000 teaching jobs.
Fortunately, Utah isn't California. Our budgets are balanced and tight, and our legislators are prudent and experienced. But our legislators aren't the problem, and Utah can't escape the negative impact of broad economic downturns. The problem is the spending bias among special interest groups that are never satisfied with reasonable levels of spending growth.
Wisely, Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, has introduced SJR22 to correct this spending bias. SJR22 is an amendment to the Utah Constitution that would limit growth in the state budget to the combined growth in state population and inflation. During good economic times, additional revenues above the spending limit would go toward paying down debt, building formidable rainy-day and emergency funds, and, if there's anything left after that, taxpayer refunds.
What makes SJR22 unique among spending limitations is the flexibility it gives state legislators. They would not only set the parameters in statute that would define the limits; they would also be able to vote to exceed those limits as new priorities arise. Utah may once again be a model of sound policy for the nation.
SJR22 restores and rightly prioritizes where political power should concentrate: on citizens and their elected representatives. It takes away from special interests the annual feeding frenzy where they grab as much cash from taxpayers and the Legislature as they can. SJR22 will force the right sorts of dialogue and deliberation.
Of course, special interests won't go quietly into the night. They will say anything necessary to keep their spending bias untouched. What they will never say is the truth: SJR22 will not only restore the balance of political power in Utah back to the people and their elected representatives, it will also improve Utah's economy even further.
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The journal Public Budgeting and Finance published a peer-reviewed article that showed Utah could have saved up to $4 billion in rainy-day and emergency funds by 2009 had the amendment been in place since 1990. Further research based on that scholarly paper reveals that cumulatively, between 1990 and 2009, the average family of four could have had an extra $23,000 in income; total personal income in the state would have grown by $748,892,848; and an extra 13,295 jobs (at a median income of $56,000 per worker) would have been created — that's 15 percent fewer people unemployed. More personal income means more tax revenue for our public schools.
The spending limits in SJR22 take only a three-fifths vote by the Legislature to override. That's seven extra votes in the House and three extra votes in the Senate. In the last 10 years, the Legislature passed 63 of 65 budget bills by more than three-fifths.
SJR22 is the right bill at the right time for future generations. So … buckle up. It's going to be a fight! For more information about SJR22, go to UtahSpending.org.
Paul T. Mero is president of the Sutherland Institute.