The facts and nothing but the facts should define the parameters of the debate on tax reduction and rollback initiatives that likely will be on November's election ballot, panelists at a tax conference agreed Thursday.
But there are facts and there are facts, and Greg Beesley, chairman of the Utah Tax Limitation Coalition, and Warren Pugh, a former state senator and co-chairman of Taxpayers for Utah, could not agree which facts are fiction during a debate at the 10th annual Utah Taxes Now conference in Salt Lake City.For Pugh, the facts look something like this: The passage of income and property tax limitation and rollback petitions would mean cutting a total of $345.7 million out of the state budget. To cut that much out of the budget, Pugh suggested, could be accomplished by eliminating such important programs as teacher career ladders and reducing kindergarten, school busing, handicap funding and others.
He also suggested reducing welfare grants by 17 percent, cutting services to 700 handicapped children in the State Training School, eliminating youth corrections and reductions in state road construction and maintenance.
"I know from experience that there is no budget that can't be cut," Pugh said. "You can cut it anywhere if you're willing to take the consequences of the cuts."
Beesley says that's not the case, although he did not rebut Pugh point by point. Rather, he said that he and his organization haven't had the time to sit down and map out exactly where all the cuts should be made. But he suggested that waste was rampant in state government, and cited as an example a recent audit that found administrators at the Timpanogos Mental Health Center have misused $3.5 million.
"Those people who think this is an isolated incident are beyond help," Beesley said.
Beesley said he sees his role as turning up the heat just enough to force elected officials to make the hard decisions he believes they have thus far avoided for political reasons.
"We're trying to create the pressure to get them to make these cuts," he said.
Beesley also called independent gubernatorial candidate Merrill Cook to the podium to give his views on how government can be cut. Cook said the first target ought to be administrative costs, which could be reduced by combining departments, such as those handling natural resources, community and economic development and the two dealing with labor and agriculture.
"We don't have to throw handicapped people out into the street," Cook said, "We just have to get administrative costs back in line."
Beesley said in general a tax cut would stimulate the economy. He said the $160 million tax increase approved by Gov. Norm Bangerter and lawmakers in 1986 is stifling economic growth.
Pugh agreed that tax cuts can stimulate the economy, but not always and he said a $350 million cut "would be so draconian that it's beyond the realm of possibility."
"There is no way you can cut $365 million from the budget without affection education," he said. "It just ain't there. I don't care what you do, as long as you understand the consequences of what you do."
Pugh also agreed that there are abuses and waste in state government, but he denied that it is as widespread as Beesley claimed.
"You have to pursue it and cut it out, but it doesn't get to the point of the immense amount of money you're talking about in these rollbacks," Pugh said.
But Pugh's comments were not always well received by some of the several hundred participants in the audience. Beeley's comments generally drew greater applause and the questions directed againt Pugh were sometimes pointed; one audience member even went so far as to accuse Pugh of "blowing smoke."
"Your're blowing smoke," Pugh responded. "You're pulling figures out of the air."