Utahns' return on the federal taxes that they pay is plummeting.

Utah received $1.02 in federal services and contracts for every $1 in federal tax that its residents and businesses paid in 1997, according to a study released by the Northeast-Midwest Institute.While that may seem good - with Utahns receiving somewhat more than they pay - it had been much better in recent years.

For example, in 1996 Utah residents and businesses received $1.08 in federal services or contracts for every $1 in federal tax paid; in 1995 it was $1.24; in 1990 it was $1.49; and in 1989 it was a whopping $1.52.

That means Utah's return on its federal taxes dropped by almost a third between 1989 and 1997 (the latest year covered in the new report).

Also, back in 1989, Utah had the fifth highest return among all the states on federal taxes paid. Now, that has fallen to a mediocre 28th place among the 50 states.

The study notes that such drops are common among Western states, which were hit especially hard in defense spending cuts and base closures in recent years.

For example, Utah bases closed in that time included Fort Douglas, the Tooele Army Depot North Area and Defense Depot Ogden. Hill Air Force Base also suffered cuts - and was threatened with closure (as was the Army's Dugway Proving Ground) but managed to survive.

Also, overall lower defense spending reduced federal work for Utah's many defense contractors, such as Thiokol and Alliant (formerly Hercules).

Such decreases in Utah's return and in those of other Western states are actually cheered by the report's authors. The Northeast-Midwest Institute works closely with members of Congress from those regions who feel they have historically had a too-poor return on taxes paid.

The report said, for example, that the Northeast-Midwest area received back just 87 cents on the tax dollar in 1997 - the lowest rate since 1989.

In contrast, the South received back $1.16 and the West received back $1.05 on average.

The report says that continues "the long-standing pattern in which the Northeast-Midwest region subsidizes the rest of the country."

Members of Congress from other areas disagree, however, and note that the federal government often spends much more per capita in the Midwest and Northeast than other areas.

But the Northeast-Midwest report argues, "the reckoning of regional equity is not just a question of how much or how little the federal government spends but also how much it collects in taxes."

Westerners argue that since the federal government owns most of the land in the West, it should spend more there to maintain national parks, freeways, forests and other lands held to benefit all Americans - not just residents of the area.

The annual report - based on data from the government and the Tax Foundation - is widely used in congressional debates as the various sides argue that they should have more of the federal spending pie.

Other interesting data in the report:

- Utah ranks a dismal 49th among the 50 states in federal per-capita spending in its boundaries.

- The federal government spends $4,097 in Utah for every resident. Only Wisconsin is lower at $4,024.

But Utah still is considered to have a decent return on its taxes because Utah also has a relatively low federal tax burden - 42nd among the states. Other states with low federal spending in the Northeast and Midwest often have high per-capita federal tax burdens.

But Utah officials often argue that such low per-capita tax burden statistics are deceptive. They say it fails to account for Utah's large families, which mean that its per-family or per-wage-earner tax burdens tend to be high.