SALT LAKE CITY — Social services advocates called on Utah lawmakers Friday to restore earmarked revenues to the state's general fund to address urgent needs in social services and education.

"Robbing Peter to pay Paul has become an unfortunate pattern in Utah’s public finance decision-making,” Matthew Weinstein of the child advocacy organization Voices for Utah Children said at a news conference at the state Capitol.

Most of the earmarks are dedicated to transportation and water infrastructure projects, diverting resources from education, services for people with disabilities, and behavioral health treatment, the advocates said. The earmarks were established without identifying new revenue sources to fund them, an open letter to lawmakers said.

"Earmarking ties policymakers’ hands so they can’t adapt to the evolving needs of the state’s ever-growing and ever-changing economy and population,” Weinstein said.

The letter was signed by representatives of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City's Peace and Justice Commission, Communidades Unidas, Community Action Partnership of Utah, Disability Law Center, Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities, National Alliance on Mental Illness - Utah, Salt Lake Community Action Program, Utah Housing Coalition, Utah League of Women Voters, Utahns Against Hunger, and Voices for Utah Children.

Longtime Senate budget chairman Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said earmarks aid the budgeting process, particularly during lean years.

"What I really like about these earmarks, as so-called, is they create an ongoing rainy day fund. It really saved us in 2008 when our economy went down the tubes," Hillyard said.

Jenn Gonnelly, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Utah, said lawmakers have less flexibility to address urgent needs when nearly 20 percent of the general fund is earmarked.

Hillyard said lawmakers have discussed the issue, "and, in fact, we've transferred money over on occasion."

Under the state constitution, income tax revenue is reserved for public education and higher education.

Sales taxes, meanwhile, are the lifeblood of state government and about 16 percent of all sales in Utah are automobile-related, Hillyard said.

"So the feeling was, if we took (money) that represents (revenue) generated from cars and put that into roads and help pay for roads, that's the way to do it. But we did it in a way that a simple majority vote can take it out and spend it for other needs. Quite frankly, the bigger pressure has been to pull it out and spend it on public education and human services," he said.

Sunny Todhunter of the Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities said the sharp increases in earmarked general fund dollars earmarked has resulted in people who have finally moved off the Division of Services for People with Disabilities' critical-needs waiting list continuing to wait for services.

Because of general fund constraints, providers who care for division clients have the lowest industry wages nationwide and their employers experience an 86 percent employee turnover rate, resulting in a bottleneck for services.

Hillyard said there have been increases, but they largely reflect costs of significant transportation projects such the rebuild of I-15 in Utah County.