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A big surplus doesn’t mean a big tax cut

SHARE A big surplus doesn’t mean a big tax cut

Utah state government has a $120 million surplus — the largest in recent years.

But don't look for a tax refund this year, perhaps not even a tax cut in the 2001 Legislature.

The surplus for fiscal 2000, which ended June 30, comes through larger-than-anticipated personal income tax and sales tax collections, Tax Commission Chief Economist Doug Macdonald told the Legislature's Revenue and Taxation Committee Wednesday.

And much of that increase was due to an especially strong stock market in 1999, reaping unexpected capital gains payments. Macdonald points out that in a $6.9 billion budget, a $120 million surplus is only a couple of percent off.

But a lot of money. For example, individual income tax revenues came in $72.18 million more than estimated by lawmakers six months ago; sales taxes $21 million more.

The $120 million is welcome news. It matches state surpluses of the early-to-mid-1990s, which routinely topped $100 million. In recent years, however, surpluses have been more modest.

In preliminary fiscal year-end numbers, Macdonald said the two major state funds — the Uniform School Fund and the General Fund — combined show a $118.31 million surplus.

The state's transportation fund has a $3.5 million surplus.

Even though Gov. Mike Leavitt, all the Utah House and half of the Senate face re-election this year, lawmakers didn't give a general tax cut this year.

They wanted to fund public education at high levels and keep pace with rebuilding I-15 in Salt Lake County.

Leavitt and some moderate GOP lawmakers were criticized by Republican primary challengers this spring for letting state government budgets grow to record levels in the 1990s. However, both Leavitt and the moderate incumbents won either in party conventions or the June 27 primary election.

Not since 1988 have legislators and then-Gov. Norm Bangerter actually given a tax rebate. So the chances of that this election year are not high.

A tax cut could come in the 2001 Legislature. But GOP leaders promise that in the general session they'll work on an increased education funding goal, and so it may be difficult to find money for a tax cut then.

And while state spending has doubled in 10 years, legislators and Leavitt have also given record tax cuts that combined total more than $1 billion.

In any case, as always, there are plenty of demands on the $120 million.

Human Services budgets are running $10 million short, and some legislators want to find extra cash to help parents of adoptive children with disabilities to continue receiving special help.

Some conservative lawmakers want to pay cash for new state buildings and remodeling old ones.

Leavitt's budget office warns that because some of this year's surpluses come in a volatile stock market and capital gains, at least some of the surplus should be considered one-time money. That is, it may not be there next year.

But the stock market is coming back after steep drops this spring and the Utah economy overall is still strong, Macdonald said.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com