This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Utah's Tax Review Commission is recommending that Utah dial back on so-called budget "earmarks" that automatically channel money to specific purposes. The reasoning is sound. Such purposes should have to compete with other priorities for the state's limited resources. Removing the earmarks lets legislators who decide Utah's budget operate more freely to set those priorities.
But removing those earmarks also should come with a pledge from legislators to improve the state budgeting process to make it more transparent and give more opportunity for public input.
At the behest of state legislators, the Tax Review Commission has been reviewing many earmarks that previous state Legislatures had put into the law over the years. In general, the earmarks were a way to protect certain long-term needs from the ebbs and flows of yearly politics. In practice, the guaranteed money has sometimes funded projects that aren't necessarily the state's highest need – simply because the money couldn't be directed elsewhere.
Two earmark-heavy areas in particular roads and water projects are ripe for this reform. In the case of roads, funding is already undergoing some significant shifts. Earlier this year the Legislature made its first change to the gasoline tax in almost 20 years. At the same time, some counties just approved the quarter-cent sales tax increase, the majority of which goes to roads. The effects of those changes are not fully known yet, but it may mean the earmarked money is more than needed.
Similarly, how we pay for water is getting more scrutiny these days. Traditionally, Utah has relied on taxes for much of the cost of water, which reduces the per-gallon costs paid by water users through their monthly bills. But that approach gives users less incentive to conserve. If the state earmarks a certain amount of tax money for water projects, that also puts more burden on the general taxpayer and less on the water users.
The state's budget process involves some sausage making. The governor rolls out a detailed budget proposal before the January legislative session begins. But once the session begins, everything becomes a moving target. Appropriations committees meet and discuss budget issues, but everything remains nebulous until the final days of the session. Then, an omnibus budget bill emerges with virtually no time for it to receive any legitimate public scrutiny. In that climate, the guarantees of earmarks offer some certainty.
So go ahead and cut the earmarks, but that effort should be coupled with a push to spread out the Legislature's budgeting process over the session so the public can have a greater role in how its money is spent.