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Utah headed to $130 million budget surplus, thanks to healthy economy

Published July 26, 2017 12:56 pm

Analyst says low unemployment, fairly low wages prompt companies to move to Utah.
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With strong growth in jobs, wages and taxable sales, Utah state government could end up with a surplus of as much as $130 million for the fiscal year that just ended on June 30.

That includes surpluses of up to $80 million in the education fund, $50 million in the general fund and $10 million in the transportation fund.

The Legislative Fiscal Analyst's Office delivered that news, with caveats, to the Executive Appropriations Commission on Tuesday.



It projects that when final revenues are totaled for the fiscal year, the state will have a surplus somewhere between a high of $130 million and a deficit of $5 million. It said the midpoint of the projections is a surplus of $65 million.

"We're seeing moderately strong growth in employment, wages, construction and taxable sales," said Andrea Wilko, a fiscal analyst.

"We have low unemployment and fairly low wages. The reason that's good is it encourages companies to relocate to the state," she said.

Wilko added that the state has "a highly educated, fairly low-cost workforce," and "for future economic growth, that's a good position to be in."

Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, whose late husband led the Utah AFL-CIO labor union, pushed back on that assertion. She said higher wages would help the economy even more, allowing middle-income residents to buy more and create more jobs.

Wilko said retail sales also are strong "due to increased remittance of some online sales" because of deals struck between the state and such large online retailers as Amazon to collect Utah sales tax voluntarily.

Also, she said gasoline tax revenue has been strong because low prices have led people to buy and drive more.

Wilko warned of a few dark clouds that could reduce the size of surpluses.

"We're still seeing weakness in severance tax collections" from mineral, oil and gas development, she said. While they have improved lately, "even with the turnaround we are below historic levels."

The report also sought to look into the future — and predicts that any new recession is likely years away.

"Employment growth is expected to continue to be positive through calendar year 2018, growing at about 3.1 percent," Wilko said. "When you compare it to the nation, you will see we are significantly ahead."

She said retail sales would likely to grow about 8 percent in 2017, and 5.6 percent through 2018.

Meanwhile, "home prices are expected to grow by about 7.9 percent for 2017 and continue to grow at 6 percent through 2018," she said. "If you're looking for a home, you are not going to be happy to hear this. If you are selling your home, you're going to be happy."

Fiscal analyst Thomas Young said demand for new homes is outpacing supply at the moment, keeping prices high.

House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, a homebuilder, agreed, saying, "We can't build homes fast enough because of the lack of supply."

Still, he said things are not exactly rosy for homebuilders. "My costs are increasing faster than I am able to raise prices."

"That goes to land costs as well as direct construction costs are escalating at rates that we have not seen since before the last downturn," Wilson added. "I don't know what that means. But it is scary as all get out."

ldavidson@sltrib.com

Twitter: @LeeHDavidson

 

 

 

 

 

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