To the editor:

The average citizen has a hard time understanding how much its government is really spending to conduct the business of government. Few political questions are more important than the government's budget, the budget process and the format of the budget presentation. It certainly does not help when budgets are presented in a format that makes it almost impossible for the average citizen to quickly grasp what the government is really spending this year and how much more the government plans to spend next year - information that must be made public, according to the Utah Constitution before the Legislature meets.Take the governor's recently proposed Recommended Budget for FY 92, for example. FY 92 means the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1991, and ending June 30, 1992, just like FY 91 means the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1990, and ending June 30, 1991. The forward to the new proposed budget says, "The governor is recommending a budget of $3.53 billion for FY 92, and that represents a $153 million increase or jump of 4 1/2 percent for the current year." The average citizen thinks that must mean there is $153 million or 4 1/2 percent more to spend next year than what the Legislature decided to spend last year. It is obvious. Right?

Wrong. Believe it or not, what the governor's proposed budget for FY 92 really says is that there is $545 million more to spend during the current year FY 91 and next year FY 92 than the Legislature appropriated just last January for FY 91. Let's walk through it.

In January 1990 the Legislature appropriated a grand total of $3.24 billion for FY 91. $135 million additional came in from federal funds, dedicated credits, and the largest state fund of all, "miscellaneous or other," as the governor's budget book calls it. (Of the $135 million additional, $48 million is listed as "other.") The Legislature knew last January that it would be hard to predict the federal funds, the dedicated credits, and the"other," especially the "other," so they just told the governor, "You are hereby authorized to spend every last cent of whatever else comes in from federal funds, dedicated credits, and `other' without checking with us or asking us further." And the governor has done that. So now the "authorized" budget has become $3.37 billion. And this is all fine and legal, but we still shouldn't forget that already the governor is spending $135 million more than the $3.24 appropriation figure for FY 91.

But wait - there is even more. Now comes some even more interesting money. State taxes, primarily sales taxes, income taxes, and gas taxes, are much larger than the Legislature thought they would be. That's great, right? Well, I guess it depends on whether you pay taxes or get paid by taxes. Anyway, $121 million additional money over the projection comes in from these kinds of taxes. But the governor is not supposed to just spend that. No, the Legislature has set forth a different condition on this kind of additional money should it come in. The governor must ask for a supplemental appropriation by calling for a special session of the Legislature to spend it.

But there is one big problem. A bunch of Independents and Democrats are out trying to take the sales tax off food, and the governor has opposed that. And now if he calls a special session to start spending it, he'll simply expose all the extra money that the government has, and then the people trying to get the sales tax off food would win because the tax cut won't really hurt education like all the government people have been assuring us.

No, the governor decides to do two things instead with the additional $121 million (not to be confused with the first additional $135 million which he's already spent). First, he tells the government's department heads to start spending it because (second) he'll ask the Legislature for this supplemental appropriation for FY 91 after the food tax election during the regular legislative session that is supposed to be for the FY 91 budget. Of course, with all the legislators of the same party, this back-dated supplemental appropriation is a "lead-pipe cinch." But what if one chance in a million something should go wrong, and it isn't passed? Then the department heads would simply have to cut down on the spending so that the total year's spending by June 30, 1991, would come back down in line with what the Legislature actually appropriated in February of 1990. Simple. So "go ahead," he says, "spend the additional $121 million on top of the additional $135 million that we do not need additional legislative authority to spend anyway."

This is why the actual budget for FY 91 will come in at $3.49 billion, a full $256 million more than the Legislature appropriated just last January.

Now, to next year, FY 92. The governor says he wants to spend $3.53 billion next year FY 92. That is $289 million more than the Legislature appropriated for FY 91. No smoke and mirrors here. It really is $289 million more than last year's appropriation. That's a 9 percent increase and is the biggest increase in Utah's history. It's crystal clear that the government is going to spend $545 million more that what the Legislature appropriated for FY 91. You can't really spend that kind of money without really having it or being very sure you're going to have it. When I was trying to get the tax off food just last month, the governor's people told me daily, "Everything is tight; we simply don't have the money for any tax cut, no matter how small."

But you know better, and you might want to ask, "Doesn't it all make a measly $100 million per year tax cut very sensible?"

Merrill Cook

Salt Lake City