Though Utah is accustomed to tight budgeting, few state fiscal blueprints outdo the latest one when it comes to using a sharp pencil.
The proposed new budget for fiscal 1992 is more than just a reflection of the meticulously careful job of fiscal planning usually done by Gov. Bangerter - a trait that, more than partisan affinity, helps explain his high batting average in getting the Legislature to go along with his spending plans.The new budget is also a reflection of the remarkable turnaround in Utah's economy in recent years.
Since Gov. Bangerter was widely but unreasonably criticized over the slump of a few years ago, it's only fair that he get some credit for Utah's current accomplishment in outperforming the national average when it comes to generating new jobs and more personal income. Projections for the next several years look encouraging.
While the quality of a state's leadership has an impact, a variety of factors always play a part in economic progress. Among those currently propelling Utah forward are the growing and well-educated work force here, the quality of Utah's lifestyle, and an increasing appreciation of Utah's strategic geographic location at the crossroads of the West.
The challenge now is to keep building on the current progress. It won't be easy, given threat that the sour national economy could rub off on Utah and persistent but contradictory demands for tax cuts and more spending for a wide variety of worthy programs from schools to social services for the needy.
Moreover, school enrollments are growing much faster than expected. Though such growth is taking place because more people are moving to Utah as the economy improves, it also adds to Utah's always big school finance burden.
Because of such threats, Gov. Bangerter is wise in seeking to nearly double the present $52 million limit on the state's rainy-day fund. Besides providing a thicker cushion for an emergency, more reserve funds could enhance Utah's ability to borrow money by improving its credit rating.
Anyway, the new plan contemplates a total state budget of $3.5 billion, an increase of $153.5 million or 4.5 percent above the current year.
That increase would not keep up with inflation. But it would be accomplished without a tax increase, though there would be $11 million in tuition and fee increases for higher education.
Yes, there's room for quibbling with some parts of the new budget.
For example, Utah still has no precise idea of how to deal with the potentially serious loss of revenue stemming from the State Supreme Court's ruling in the AMAX Magnesium Corp. case - and the guidelines from the governor are so general that their helpfulness is limited. Those guidelines include such admirable but sweeping suggestions as protecting homes and locally-assessed businesses from tax increases, maintaining school revenues, but keeping all options open, including "adjustments" of other taxes to offset revenue lost from the levy on property. Yet it's hard to know what else the governor could say at this point. The Supreme Court's ruling, which ended a 20 percent discount to locally assessed property owners, created a major conundrum.
For another example, plenty of Utahns would welcome complete, rather than the currently partial, restoration of the provision that once let Utahns deduct their entire federal income tax payment in calculating their state income taxes. Likewise, Utah needs to get off the escalator that lets inflation keep shoving its citizens into ever higher tax brackets while the price spiral also erodes the value of their dollars. This should not be a partisan issue. It doesn't have to be addressed next year, but the 1991 Legislature could certainly start working on it through interim study committees.
One final point about the new budget: The governor's blueprints for fiscal 1992 are based on economic projections in the middle of the scale between pessimistic and optimistic. When the Legislature starts making adjustments, it would be wise to base them on conservative estimates; who knows what could happen in the Persian Gulf and what it might do to the economy? And by all means let's keep striving to avoid tax increases.