At least for the moment, Utah's lawmakers seem confident they can grant some kind of tax relief when the current legislative session ends next month.
But they are learning that writing budgets when money is plentiful is just as hard as doing it when money is scarce.Gov. Norm Bangerter recommended a $19 million tax cut when the session started. However, many lawmakers now think the governor was too conservative and that the state may be able to offer much more after new revenue figures are released in February.
Even Bangerter's chief of staff, Bud Scruggs, admits the governor is being cautious in his budget forecasts.
"The Legislature tends to estimate on the high level. We estimate on the low level," he said. "In fact, I think the Legislature is probably right."
The legislative fiscal analyst now says surpluses in various state funds total $70 million.
But optimism about the economy also is certain to fuel expectations of agencies that want more money. Some lawmakers worry about either spending surpluses or using the money to fund tax breaks. They worry the surpluses won't be repeated next year and they will be left trying to make up the difference.
Spending the surplus, Scruggs said, would be "like looking at your home mortgage and saying, `We have $10,000 equity on our home. Great. Let's go buy something.' "
Rep. Glen E. Brown, R-Coalville, understands the pressure that awaits him as co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee.
"Sometimes it's more difficult to manage when there's money," he said. "Not everybody's going to get all they want."
The other co-chairman, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, warns that lawmakers still will have to make tough decisions despite general optimism about the economy.
"There will be a great deal of pressure to spend every penny," he said. "There are far more demands than we have money."
So far, lawmakers have introduced more than 30 bills to cut or limit taxes. A proposal to chop one-half percentage point off the state's sales tax, sponsored by Rep. Franklin Knowlton, R-Layton, was passed out of its committee last week. Such a cut would cost an estimated $70 million.
But not everyone supports large tax cuts.
Sen. Stephen J. Rees, R-Salt Lake, believes the state would be better off using its surpluses to pay off its debts.
"If we used our projected surpluses to eliminate the debt, we would be debt-free by 1995," Rees said, noting he believes out-of-state businesses would be likely to move to the only debt-free state in the union.
But lawmakers face plenty of wants that could eat away at any proposal. Salaries for state employees stand near the top of the list. The governor recommended a 3 percent raise for all, but said he would be willing to agree to more if money was available. Raises cost about $12 million for each percentage point.
Health costs are closely tied to salaries. State employees currently pay for only 10 percent of their monthly premiums. The state pays the rest. If Utah is to keep pace with quickly rising health costs, lawmakers will have to find $16 million. The only other options are to increase the employee's share of the costs or to contract with a private health provider such as FHP or Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
Other problems also loom on the horizon.
Railroads recently won a complicated federal case that forces the state to grant them a 20 percent discount on their property assessments. Lawmakers aren't too worried about the discount to railroads; that would cost less than $1 million. But they are worried that owners of mining and utility interests _ the only other types of property assessed by the state _ will ask for the same thing.
"I have no intention of doing that," Hillyard said when asked if he would recommend extending the discount to all.
Another potentially costly issue involves the Ute Indian Tribe, which has decided to begin charging severance taxes on oil companies using its land. Leaders of the tribe say they are willing to negotiate with the state. They say they need money to support their tribal government.
Every agency of state government also has its own wish list, hoping to expand or add to programs.
Lawmakers have until early February before they have to get serious about tackling these problems. Until then, they are certain to banter about more plans and ideas.
"The body moves," Brown said. "We're just sort of feeling it out right now."