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Good news: $18.3 million surplus

Deseret Morning News graphic

All the budget-reduction angst of the past fiscal year, combined with a federal infusion of money, left Utah with an extra $18.3 million in its wallet, final year-end figures show.

That money, while it spells good news for wary state budget managers, will likely be used to prop up persistently slumping revenues. At last report sales tax revenue was down $10 million from initial estimates and Utah $4 million in the hole.

If the pendulum of good news/bad news appears confusing, it's due in part to what Gov. Mike Leavitt terms as the "delicate operation" of managing a budget of $7.3 billion.

Likening the budget management of the state to trying to land a jet on an aircraft carrier, Leavitt told reporters in his monthly KUED news conference Thursday that the surplus constitutes "serious" money, but it doesn't mean the state has climbed out of the hole of red ink yet.

"This reflects substantial cutbacks. We are operating on fewer dollars than we were in 2000. That's four years ago, with $150 million less. That doesn't come without some pain and that doesn't mean things are perfect."

State Budget Director Lynne Ward said the surplus was made possible because of the return of unspent money from state agencies, which were asked to curtail spending before the year-end, and the $38 million aid payment to Utah from the federal government.

Those two factors essentially helped soften the blow of an anticipated $16.4 million shortfall in tax revenues, Ward explained.

The surplus means an additional $16.5 million in the state's general fund and $1.8 million in the Uniform School Fund. The remaining $20 million from the federal aid payment will be diverted to the state's Rainy Day Fund, bringing its balance to nearly $31 million.

The emergency fund has been depleted from its high of $120 million to $10 million by lawmakers forced to contend with the economic downturn.


E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com