Like businesses in the private sector, Utah state government is faced with significantly higher health insurance costs this year. The extra money isn't for added benefits but merely keeps employee health plans at the same level.

The additional insurance expense to cover teachers and other state employees is estimated at about $24 million. How this extra cost will be handled in the budget is of crucial concern to those affected.The state currently pays 90 percent of health plan premiums; employees pay 10 percent. Yet, given the budget crunch and the higher costs, some key legislators insist the state cannot afford to absorb such a large share of the cost and are talking about having employees pick up a bigger percentage of the premiums.

While the need to hold the lid on the budget is very real and elected officials are committed to some kind of tax cut - $19 million is the governor's figure - it would hardly be fair to solve the insurance problem at the expense of state employees.

This is particularly true since legislators seem to be looking at teachers in a different light. A tentative agreement among Republican leaders on additional money for education includes $13 million to cover higher medical premiums for teachers.

If this plan holds up, how can those same lawmakers justify making other state workers pay for all or part of the remaining $11 million in higher health plan premiums?

There is nothing inherently wrong with having employees pay a bigger share of health premiums as costs rise. It happens all the time and does not seem to affect how much or how often health services are used.

But state workers are in a special situation, particularly this year. Most have had minuscule raises or none at all for the past three years and have steadily lost ground to even the modest inflation rate that has prevailed during most of that time.

The budget this year hardly makes up for that, with Gov. Norm Bangerter seeking a 3 percent salary hike for state employees - still lower than the expected inflation rate.

It would be even more devastating, both to employee morale and their pocketbooks, for the Legislature to grant that small raise with one hand and take it back with the other in the form of higher health premiums. There must be a better way to fund the rising health insurance costs, at least this time around.