The 2008 legislative session looks as if it will feature a battle between lawmakers who want to cut taxes and a governor who doesn't; and between lawmakers who want changes in local property-tax laws and a governor who doesn't.
Given the current economic trends, both in Utah and nationally, the governor's ideas seem more prudent.
Utah's economy remains strong, but it is showing signs of slowing. The anticipated state surplus this year is $1.1 billion, which, while impressive, would be lower than last year's $1.6 billion. Lawmakers and the governor have generously reduced taxes in recent years. Now is the time to make sure needs are met.
Lawmakers say their constituents are angry about property tax increases, but we wonder how widespread that anger is. In Salt Lake County, only 2.3 percent of homeowners appealed their assessed values this year, which is only a slight increase over the year before. The problems appear to be procedural, not systemic. Too many counties aren't using the most up-to-date techniques for staying atop changing property valuations. If the economy is slowing, lawmakers should think long and hard before tinkering with property taxes, which, unlike sales and income taxes, provide stable revenue sources during tough times.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s proposed budget, unveiled this week, has its priorities in the right places, even if it falls a bit short in details. He would give public education a handsome increase, including a 7 percent hike in the weighted pupil unit and $26 million to recruit and train qualified teachers. This addresses an urgent need. We wish the budget included more of a merit-based component to teacher compensations and that student performance was given more emphasis. Huntsman's budget, however, can't be said to scrimp on education, the state's most vital need.
His proposal to work on comprehensive health-care reform, appropriating $30 million with an eye toward bringing concrete ideas to the table next year, is the most intriguing part of the governor's budget. He was vague about details in meetings with us, saying he had his own ideas but didn't want to reveal them yet. But the idea that the state may find ways to make health insurance affordable, market-driven and mandatory ought to get everybody's attention. Health care costs are among the nation's most pressing problems. If Utah can find a workable solution, it could become a leader nationally in the struggle for solutions.
Huntsman's budget includes much more that is worthy of praise, including funding to address problems in corrections and money for transportation needs. He would provide $2 million for the preservation of open spaces, although such proposals are yearly met with underwhelming support by lawmakers.
We find it curious that Huntsman's budget, as with those proposed by his most recent predecessors, has been received more enthusiastically by Democrats than by members of his own party. The final budget is virtually assured to be different than what the governor has proposed, but he has provided a blueprint for the proper priorities in a time of relative uncertainty.