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Government agencies are always being asked to be more efficient in the use of tax dollars. But when savings actually are made, those agencies shouldn't be penalized for what they have accomplished.

That principle is at the heart of a dispute between the Legislature and several state-funded institutions. The institutions have found a way to cut costs and want to use the money for other serious needs. Instead, lawmakers are saying: "Give it back" to the general fund.Legislators are eagerly looking for ways to pare an already tight budget and want every spare dollar that pops into view to be herded into the state's general fund. But that could be self-defeating if it punishes agencies for saving money. Where's the incentive to save if the savings are confiscated and can't be used by the hard-pressed institutions for other needs?

A legislative analyst is urging state officials to require seven state agencies to return some $944,000 in anticipated savings on this year's heating bill to the state's general fund.

But taxpayers might be better served if the University of Utah, Utah State University, Weber State College, the state prison, the state training school, the state hospital, and the state Capitol complex are allowed to keep the money, as they are requesting.

These seven agencies have taken advantage of a business incentive - direct purchase of natural gas from well producers - that will cut their fuel costs.

In return, the agencies are not asking for more money. They are simply asking that their efforts be rewarded by allowing them to use the savings for other needs not currently funded by the Legislature.

Granted, the institutions must be held accountable for the use of those dollars. Efforts must be made to ensure that money goes for needed and justified uses. But lawmakers should nurture and reward such efficiency.

This may be the opportunity officials have been seeking to pump a little life back into a system that has been demoralized and stagnant for far too long.