SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah lawmakers look to tighten their budget belts and put state spending on a strict fiscal diet amid the coronavirus pandemic, subsidies for the Hogle Zoo are under question as well as how much environmental regulatory programs can withstand the hemorrhaging.
Members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee, like other committees in the Utah Legislature, were given the task to approve scenarios of spending cuts to agencies in their purview of 2%, 5% or as much as 10%.
It wasn’t pretty when they met Wednesday for four hours, dissecting budget cut recommendations and haggling over who should bleed the most.
Legislative fiscal analysts worked with agency directors to recommend cuts to the Executive Appropriations Committee, which will make the ultimate determination.
One of the most dominating debates centered around Hogle Zoo, which receives $1.1 million in general fund money. If a 10% cut — the most extreme scenario — is imposed on the Utah Department of Natural Resources that provides the money to the zoo, it would prioritize other programs and reduce the zoo’s funding by $900,000.
“To hit the zoo right now, that doesn’t feel right,” said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Utah.
The zoo suffered during the shutdown during the height of its busiest season, Director Scott Burns told committee members.
As an example, a comparison of the same 15-day period from 2020 to 2019 showed a $350,000 revenue loss, Burns said.
Several committee members talked about the value of the zoo, saving it economically and preserving an asset for Utah.
Others, however, said it wasn’t fair for the state to use general fund money to prop up the private operation at the expense of state services provided by the Utah Department of Natural Resources, which could see employee losses.
“I think this is about prioritization and fairness,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise.
The agency’s predator control funding is taking a hit as well, as $500,000 in funding for invasive species is targeted under the recommendations.
Brian Steed, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said the zoo funding shouldn’t take priority over critical services his agency provides.
“I am not trying to pick a fight with the zoo to be clear,” he said, responding to suggestions that the state parks division could take more cuts or wildlife resources could absorb more reductions in funding. “It seems like we are picking winners and losers at this point.”
Committee members ultimately approved a recommendation of $494,800 in reduced funding for the zoo, digging up the money in bond repayments under obligation by the agency.
The change was made with a motion by Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who said such drastic reductions should not be made at Hogle Zoo.
“The zoo is a good resource,” he said, adding he didn’t want a “Jumanji effect” playing out in Salt Lake City with wild animals on the street should there be a closure.
Committee members also grilled Scott Baird, director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, on the proposal to meet budget reductions by reducing the state subsidy from the general fund to EnergySolutions by a little more than $600,000 in oversight fees.
Two years ago, lawmakers passed a bill that waived those fees for oversight of low-level radioactive waste. The company continues to pay taxes on its operations related to environmental regulations.
Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, said the agency was relying on double taxation in this budget cutting effort and instead wants it to look internally to make additional cuts.
“I am hesitant to go back and revisit this,” he said.
Several Democratic members of the committee called the general fund subsidy to EnergySolutions a giveaway that should be revisited during the budget crisis.
Ultimately, the committee voted to zap the proposal for EnergySolutions to pay a portion of the fees and instead make up the deficit by dipping into restricted funds in the agency.