The state of Utah has $287 million owed to it that, if collected, could be spent on anything - lower taxes, schoolbooks, even roads.
Actually, according to a new study by the Legislative Fiscal Analyst, the state is owed $873 million. But that includes debts and other obligations owed on federal programs operated by the state and a huge chunk of "third-party" debt - mainly in child support payments owed to custodial parents who've asked the state to collect from so-called "deadbeat dads and moms."But the $287 million is unrestricted cash. All the state has to do is find the people who owe it and get them to pay, legislative budgeters told House and Senate leaders Tuesday.
Nine out of 10 dollars of that $287 million is owed to the State Tax Commission, said John Massey of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst's Office.
And the Tax Commission should do a better job of turning over some of its delinquent accounts to the Office of State Debt Collection, a new bureaucracy created in 1995 that collects some debts itself and gives over some bad accounts to two private agencies that contract with the state to collect the money.
The two firms get between 10 percent and 12 percent on the bad debts they collect.
Massey said the Tax Commission is a bit shy about turning over all the bad debts it could to the private collection agencies because they are aggressive.
The debt collectors "may use hard-core techniques" on some delinquent taxpayers, "contrary to the wishes of some legislators, in some cases," said Massey, trying to be tactful.
In other words, some important constituents could get leaned on to pay disputed taxes, and legislators would hear about it.
Members of the Executive Appropriations Committee didn't have time Tuesday to hear the Tax Commission's response to the report. Commissioners will do that next month. But a new, expensive Tax Commission computer system will allow the agency to better track and audit taxpayers and help in the collection process, lawmakers were told.
Perhaps even a greater frustration to legislative leaders is that after years of effort, the state court system still can't say how much money is owed the courts in judgments, fines and penalties.
On a huge chart Massey compiled on all state "debts owed," the court system's line is blank. Court administrators will also update lawmakers next month on their efforts at identifying and tracking court debts.
"There are great (sums) owed the courts, I'm told," said a slightly irritated LeRay McAllister, the committee's co-chairman and a GOP senator from Orem.
Aside from taxes owed, the state's greatest debt comes in unpaid child support - both that owed to women and children on welfare and owed to self-supporting families who ask the state's Office of Recovery Services to find deadbeat dads and make them pay.
If a custodial parent comes to the state's recovery services office and asks the state's help in collecting current and back child support, by federal law the state must help, said Emma Chocon, recovery services office director.
If the account is turned over to the Office of State Debt Collection, the private collection firms get 10 percent or 12 percent of collections for its work. If the client doesn't agree to pay that, the state must pick up that cost.
Often the recovery service doesn't charge the collection fee and doesn't turn over all the accounts it could to the debt collection office, said Massey.
Chocon says the state should start collecting the fee, providing the custodial parents agree to not getting all their money.
"Some of these women are paying 20 percent or 30 percent to private, non-state collection agencies to get their child support," Chocon said, so a change in the law to require recovery services clients to pay 10 percent wouldn't be unreasonable.