When lawmakers answer the roll call Monday for the 1989 session of the Utah Legislature, the chief issue - as usual - will be money. But this year, instead of struggling to make serious budget cuts to cope with revenue shortfalls, there will be some relief due to an improved economy.
That doesn't mean the state is rolling in money. It isn't. The sense of crisis that dominated the 1987-88 fiscal year has lessened, yet many agencies will go away with less than they think they need to deal adequately with existing problems.Because of a brighter economy, there will be an estimated $80 million increase in revenue. However, the very existence of additional money is sure to touch off a bitter struggle by various factions that feel they have suffered heavily in recent years.
Gov. Norman Bangerter's budget will take care of larger welfare needs, bigger school enrollments, and necessary pay hikes. But we're talking bare minimum here, not a major improvement in programs.
Chief among those who are unhappy are state employees, many of whom haven't had a raise for three years and who feel that the 3 percent raise in Gov. Bangerter's proposed budget does not make up for income lost to inflation. Others feeling pinched are public schools and higher education, the latter threatened by possible defection of faculty members to better-paying jobs.
Despite many such unmet needs, the governor recommends a $19 million tax cut - a recognition of the tax revolt that nearly cost him his job in last fall's election. While tax cut proposals failed at the ballot box, the resentment over taxes remains a strong undercurrent in Utah.
Just where to make that $19 million tax cut is sure to be one of the intense issues in the Legislature, even though the amount of money is small. Some Republican leaders want to increase the federal deduction on the state income tax form. The state now allows one-third of the federal tax to be claimed. The $19 million would allow that to be raised to one-half.
Other legislators want to start eliminating the sales tax on food. This is a priority of the Tax Limitation Coalition, which would like to see the entire tax removed at one blow. Because the sales tax on food brings in $60 million to $100 million - no one knows for sure - the state probably can't afford this step all at once without jeopardizing other needs.
Two budget uncertainties the Legislature must face include the costs of repairing the Quail Creek dam disaster near St. George and the as-yet-unknown impact of a court ruling that the state must equalize its formula for taxing property held by railroads. The court held that the formula discriminated against railroads, taxing them at too high a rate.
Aside from budget issues, the legislative agenda appears rather quiet. Hundreds of bills will be introduced, but most will be of marginal interest. There will be some measures dealing with AIDS, including one bill to strengthen privacy provisions for AIDS victims. A bill will seek to raise the legal age for smoking. An effort to start studies on family violence will be made. There will be the usual lottery bills, which should be given the traditional short shrift.
The 45-day session, dominated as usual by the Republicans, promises to be relatively moderate in tone. The absence of a sense of crisis and impending disaster will be a welcome relief from previous years.