It would be hard to produce a more cautious and conservative state budget than the one outlined today by Gov. Bangerter.
Here is a budget that contemplates a spending increase of only $84 million - a figure that amounts to an overall hike in the state budget of less than 1 percent. In other words, it is a budget that does not even pretend to come close to keeping up with inflation and population growth.That means it is a budget that ought to please not only tax protesters, but plenty of other Utahns as well. That goes particularly for his plan for a $19 million tax cut, a figure that could be achieved either by a two-mill slice in property taxes or by starting to eliminate the sales tax on food.
This, in turn, means it is a budget that reflects the need to keep attracting new industry and to keep the pressure on state government to become even more lean and efficient than it already is.
But the proposed new budget likely won't please state employees, who would get a raise of only 3 percent instead of the 8 percent they have been seeking. And it undoubtedly won't sit well with school leaders, who have been seeking substantially more for both higher education and elementary and secondary schools than the governor saw fit to request from the Legislature.
Though the growth in Utah's school population has started to taper off, the fact remains that it is still rising. This growth - which is in striking contrast to the situation in other states - can be a long-range benefit to Utah, since it provides this state with more workers to help attract new industry. But this prospect doesn't make it any easier to deal with the immediate challenge of educating more students without sacrificing quality.
Even apart from the challenges involving education, a budget with as little room for growth as the new one from Gov. Bangerter could still run a risk. If Utah isn't careful, it eventually could find itself in a painfully familiar position - with a long list of unmet needs and no way to deal with them without a major tax increase.
It was just such a situation, and the record large tax hike it produced, that brought on the recent movement to impose some artificial limits on Utah's ability to hike taxes. Let's strive to avoid a repetition of this painful chapter in Utah's history.
Utah's prospects look reasonably promising. The recent increases in collections of sales and income taxes reflect a recovering economy. Utah is generating new jobs at an encouraging rate and now ranks 17th in the nation on this score. The state is starting to run budget surpluses again, at least on a modest scale. Utah is certainly much better off when that happens than it is when revenue falls short of projections and the governor and other state leaders have to make the awkward adjustments needed to keep the budget out of the red.
All of this is more than welcome after a long period in which Utah's economy was essentially flat. A flat economy justifies and even demands a flat budget, which in essence is what Gov. Bangerter produced this week. In fact, he deserves considerable credit for keeping budget-making efforts on schedule in view of his difficult campaign for re-election in a three-way race and the uncertainty of the outcome of the tax limitation proposals.
But the fact remains that Utah's economy is starting to grow again, and a growing state can't afford to shackle itself with a long series of no-growth budgets. The one outlined this week is acceptable. But let's not make it a habit.