Since 1989, Utah state government has run a combined surplus of $585 million, almost all of it spent by Republican governors and legislators with only two modest tax decreases coming along the way.

Since 1989 the state's budget has grown an average of 8 percent a year, by most accounts growth that exceeded inflation and population increases.State budgeters estimate another $72 million surplus for fiscal 1995, which ends next June 30, and more than $166 million in anticipated revenue growth for fiscal 1995-96, whose budget will be adopted by lawmakers in the January-February general session.

Monday, GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt will release his 1995-96 recommended budget. Already he's announced record spending on trans-portation, education and corrections programs.

As Utah's growing economy continues to fuel huge budget surpluses and record state spending, there are a few legislators - a few - who are warning that state government is growing too fast, that tax cuts and curtailed spending are called for.

"It is ludicrous to go on like this," says Rep. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, a banker who after his election in 1992 led a group of fiscally conservative Republican House members in calling for a tax cut last year. They got one, but only after mid-session revenue estimates showed $50 million more in anticipated revenue growth in this fiscal year. Leavitt and lawmakers then agreed to a $24 million sales-tax cut.

But as the 1995 session approaches, some lawmakers are talking about bigger tax cuts, lamenting missed tax-cutting opportunities of the past.

Consider this: If Utahns had approved Merrill Cook's 1990 sales-tax-off-food initiative petition at the ballot box, the state could have easily absorbed the $91 million cost per year.

"You have to ask, was the (surplus) money spent wisely," says Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, who was in the Senate during those years. He believes on the main it was.

"And you have to say now that we look ahead to anticipated growth and tax revenues, not back to what was. We have to plan wisely for future spending."

If the sales tax had been removed from food, could the state have put more than $60 million into technology for the schools, asks Beattie. "Could we have put the money we did into class size reduction? Could we have pumped all the cash we did to meet federal mandates, including record spending on Medicare matches? Could we have paid for the federal retiree lawsuit settlement?"

While a $72 million surplus in 1995 seems like a lot, it is only 1.5 percent of a more-than $4.5 billion budget. "That's pretty good budgeting; an exactness most businesses would be glad to achieve. And isn't it better to run a 1.5 percent surplus than a deficit and have to cut budgets in mid-year?" asks Beattie.

Plus, there are great needs in the state. Utah ranks last in the nation in class size in public schools. Teachers' pay still doesn't meet the average regional pay levels. Roads and bridges are falling apart; water needs are great.

But Utahns still bear one of the greatest overall tax burdens - based on ability to pay - in the nation, and Republicans are finding it harder and harder to justify the huge spending increases they award each year.

Democrats are now in the game as well. Already House Democratic leaders are calling for at least a $30 million tax cut this coming session. But they are in the minority and won't be direct players in setting the budget or tax rates.

"For years the state budgeters have been telling us that our (growing) surpluses were cyclical. But after such a track record - year after year of these surpluses - no, we're seeing surpluses that are continuing. Yes, the economy rises and falls, but these surpluses have maintained themselves" over the years, says Hickman.

Two things must - and probably will - happen in the 1995 session, he believes: "Either we dedicate these surpluses to transportation - and we have billions of dollars in needs out there - or we give a tax cut and stop taking the money in the first place."

The 1/8-cent sales-tax cut of last year, "wasn't significant - we'd have to do more than that," says Hickman. "We could have taken the sales tax off food years ago and paid for it, that's clear."



State budget growth

Surpluses by fiscal year

1995:* $72,000,000

1994: 120,000,000

1993: 46,500,000

1992: 60,000,000

1991: 63,000,000

1990: 130,000,000

1989: 166,000,000

Total $657,500,000 surplus from 1989 to 1995

Growth in state budget

First year budget hit $1 billion: 1978

First year budget hit $2 billion: 1984

First year budget hit $3 billion: 1990

First year budget hit $4 billion: 1993

1994 to '95: 7.0%

1993 to '94: 7.4%

1992 to '93: 8.2%

1991 to '92: 8.7%

1990 to '91: 8.5%

1989 to '90: 8.5%