State spending in Utah has grown significantly in recent years, but there are different ways to view this.
One is the view the Utah Taxpayers Association presents in its monthly newsletter: that this growth is attributable to the governor. Yes, it is true the governor has a great deal of influence over the budget. He presents his proposal before the legislative session begins, hoping to set a tone. But it is more true that the final budget is a combined effort of the executive and legislative branches of government.
Another view is that all growth beyond what reasonably could be attributed to growth and inflation is unnecessary. This is a view often taken by the libertarian CATO Institute in Washington, which annually assigns letter grades to the nation's governors. Years ago, the group gave former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt a D, in part because he agreed to raise gas taxes to pay for the reconstruction of I-15.
Anyone with knowledge of the state at that time understood the need for a new freeway, especially with the Winter Olympics on the way.
Any assessment of today's state expenditures has to take into account Utah's uniquely high level of school-aged children, which also accounts for a good portion of the annual growth rate. It also has to take into account the state's infrastructure needs, especially in light of the growth in vehicular traffic. And it also needs to put the responsibility on lawmakers as well as the governor.
As the Utah Taxpayers Association report says, Huntsman's administration has benefitted from a healthy economy, and it has responded to "pressure to compensate for the lean years" during the early part of this decade. His administration also has presided over large tax cuts, the credit for which also belongs partly to lawmakers.
One would be hard-pressed to characterize Utah's leaders as spending money like drunken sailors. Utah isn't Washington. Every year, the final budget has to balance. Still, we're not unsympathetic to the concerns of the more conservative members of the Legislature. One of them, Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, told this paper he worries the state can't sustain such spending when a slowdown comes.
Education, infrastructure, corrections, social services these and other needs demand attention. But the 8.9 percent growth under Huntsman's administration, viewed in light of tax cuts and a 5.8 percent growth in population and inflation, doesn't seem terribly out of line.