Critics of the Utah Legislature may have legitimate reasons to attack some decisions made in recent years, but they cannot reasonably assail state lawmakers for fiscal mismanagement. Using accumulated "rainy day" funds and prudent cuts, the state has weathered the economic downturn without raising taxes and without harming the business sector. That's one reason why many publications and experts rank the state high as a place to do business as the nation struggles to recover financially.
Supporters of Constitutional Amendment A, which is on Utah ballots in the general election, would like to limit some of the ability lawmakers have to make critical decisions with the money the state collects. That is unnecessary, and it could become harmful one day under a similar, or worse, recession than the one that started four years ago. For that reason, we urge you to vote "no" on Amendment A.
Voters will face two proposed constitutional amendments on statewide ballots. The other, Amendment B, would exempt active military personnel or their spouses from paying property taxes on their homes if the military member is serving out of state for at least 200 days during a calendar year. That is a common-sense measure that properly rewards those who are willing to sacrifice in defense of the nation. We urge voters to vote "yes" on Amendment B.
Amendment A seeks, in effect, to punish lawmakers for the way they responded to the recent economic downturn. It would require that a large portion of the money collected each year in severance taxes be put aside in a permanent state trust fund. This allocation could be overruled only by vote of three-fourths of both the House and Senate and the approval of the governor. Severance taxes are money collected each year on the extraction of oil, gas and minerals on Utah lands.
If this sounds familiar, it is because voters approved an amendment in 2008 allowing the state to invest severance taxes in the trust fund. Lawmakers then passed a law requiring themselves to do so with everything in excess of $98.6 million collected from that tax. They increased that threshhold in 2011 to $104.6 million, which helped the state meet its fiscal needs without further cuts or a tax increase. However, that effectively spent all the severance tax collected that year.
We agree with the principle behind the severance tax trust fund. Energy and mineral extraction is a limited form of economic activity in Utah. The day will come — although it is yet a long way off — when those natural resources are depleted. Rather than let future generations figure out how to cover revenue shortfalls when that day comes, the trust fund would provide a ready source of annual interest earnings to help state coffers.
Utah lawmakers, however, have proven themselves to be fiscally responsible, and not just in the short term. It makes little sense to use the state constitution to strap them into a spending plan that reduces their ability to react to the state's needs, and that would require a super-majority to overrule.