Budget scrambles went down to the final minute and the clock ran out before the 1991 Utah Legislature could finish all the business at hand, particularly a $70 million to $100 million capital projects bonding bill. As a result, no new building projects are funded and a special session is going to be needed later in the year.
Aside from that tangle, lawmakers performed reasonably well and did manage to pass an impressive amount of legislation, some of it with far-reaching implications, such as an overhaul of the state property tax system, a tough new abortion law, renovation of the Salt Palace, new driver's license limits and a unified court system.Biggest disappointments involved financing in education and particularly in human services. Such budget issues may be the source of major political unrest in the year ahead.
Some of the major decisions:
- Abortion. Legislators adopted the toughest abortion law in the nation, prohibiting all abortions except where the health of the mother is threatened or in cases of rape, incest or severe fetal deformities. The issue is sure to result in yearslong court battles all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. While the legality is being decided, the law will not be enforced.
- Property tax reform. This was required by a Utah Supreme Court decision involving the AMAX company that threatened a $56 million loss of income. Tax laws were revamped to recover $45 million, but $11 million in property taxes had to be shifted to home owners and small business, resulting in small tax hikes.
- Pay raises. State employees, including teachers, were promised a 5 percent pay hike. The compensation package was funded at only 4.5 percent, which includes benefits. Actual paycheck raises will average around 3 percent. The inflation rate is about 6.3 percent. There may be a lot of unrest at contract time and when school starts next fall, and the word "strike" has already been heard. Teachers should use restraint and not engage in another disruptive public confrontation.
- Higher education. Although colleges and universities received an additional $2.8 million for enrollment growth, that will fall short of the expected flood of new students. For the first time, 2,000 or more qualified Utah high school graduates may not be able to get into college because of a limit on student-body size imposed by cash-short colleges.
- Salt Palace. The state finally produced its $15 million share for upgrading and expanding the Salt Palace convention center, a necessary step if Utah is to stay in the business of attracting conventions. A 1 percent county-option restaurant sales tax increase also was authorized to promote tourism. Salt Lake County will use the money to help operate the Salt Palace.
- Human services. This is where the need is perhaps the greatest. And this is where the Legislature, for the second year in a row, has been hard on the poorest and most needy. Last year, lawmakers had to pledge an extra $8 million after the session to meet basic needs ignored during the session. That lesson clearly was not taken to heart this time around. Most human service programs survived, but frequently at no increase in funding to cope with larger numbers of people.
The poor, the sick, the handicapped appear to be shouldering a disproportionate share of the tight budget and revenue shortfalls.
Lawmakers did, however, create an insurance fund to help those unable to purchase insurance because of chronic health problems, establish a Children's Justice Center, set up a Department of Environmental Quality, make spousal rape illegal, adopt some campaign and lobbyist reforms, authorize $4 million to reduce first-grade class loads, and appropriate $11.9 million for technology in Utah schools, with private sources supposed to raise $1 for every two state dollars.
No Legislature can please everyone. Each year, the results are a mixed bag and this session was no different. Lawmakers worked hard, accomplished much that was good and left undone some things that should have been done. But all told, it was a creditable job.