More money on transportation? Of course. Infrastructure must be built and maintained. Do you want bridge problems like they have in Minnesota? Oh, we do have those problems? Well, for heaven’s sake, let’s spend more. Maybe we can get our national legislators to toss us a few bucks to assuage their guilt. Ah yes, it’s a good time to be a transportation contractor in Utah.
More money on education? Well, sure! Don’t you know that we’re in last place in the per-pupil spending race in the nation? Don’t you know that spending more money on education will make it better? Don’t you care about the children? Never you mind about the inability to account for past spending increases.
More money on … well, just about anything? Heck, why not? We’ve got the money. And besides, we had some lean years in ’02 through ’04, where we really had to tighten our belts. Let’s splurge while we’ve got it. I mean, what area of state spending isn’t chronically underfunded?
More money returned to the taxpayers? Well, no. I mean, it would only amount a measly $X for each taxpayer. I’m sure they’d rather leave that paltry sum in the hands of the state bureaucracy. And besides, this money is so badly needed.
Indeed the Utah Taxpayer Association’s January newsletter shows, “During the 10-year time period from 1999 to 2009, total [State of Utah] government expenditures will have nearly doubled.” That isn’t meaningful unless you compare it to inflation. The newsletter explains, “Total state expenditures will increase 12% from 1999 to 2009 after adjusting for inflation and population growth.” So it’s not so bad. Or is it?
The newsletter also explains, “Government growth will easily exceed combined population growth and inflation for both [5-year and 10-year] time periods [ending 2009].” Unlike the federal government, states must balance their budgets each year. Utah has done well in this respect. So, where has all the money for this increased spending come from? The newsletter says:
“From 1997 to 2007, all major revenue sources grew faster than combined inflation and population growth and only state sales tax and motor fuel tax grew slower than personal income, while property taxes grew at a rate nearly equal to personal income.”
In other words, the State of Utah has increased its share of what comes out of its taxpayers’ pockets. If you’re a Utah taxpayer, you have less of what you earn in terms of real money, while state government has more of the money you earn. This is an ongoing trend that won’t stop with this budget year. Do you care? Or are you like the proverbial frog in the pot of water where the temperature is increased only one degree per hour?
Respected political analyst Michael Barone opines in this WSJ article that the average voter today came of age in an era of unprecedented prosperity. “The median-age voter in 2008,” he writes, “was born around 1963, so he or she missed out on the culture wars of the '60s, and on the economic disasters and foreign policy reverses of the 1970s.” Consequently, today’s voters are “relatively unconcerned about the downside risks of big government programs, and largely unaware of America's historic foreign policy successes.”
It seems that Utah voters are no exception to this trend. They seem relatively unconcerned about the fact that the growth of state government is outstripping their ability to provide for their families. So when Governor Huntsman (under whose watch Utah has experience the largest historical increase in state government spending) stands up and says that, while his 2009 budget includes another massive surplus but has no room for tax cuts, the voters shrug. When he says that all Utahns need coercive universal health care (masqueraded as a market-based solution), they cheer.
We seem incapable of casting our eyes westward to see California’s fate. After sloshing years of budget surpluses into the trough of increased government spending, the economic cycle inevitably turned from boom to bust. Angry voters ousted their standing governor in a recall and elected a celebrity his place, only to demand essentially that he not cut spending. They still want government to spend, but they aren’t so keen on paying for it.
But we can’t see that. So we celebrate Utah’s expanding government as the budget surpluses are ‘invested.’ Today, Utah’s strong economy is showing signs of weakening. The boom can’t continue forever. What will we do when the bust comes along? As the UTA notes, “More than half of all education and general fund revenues are individual and corporate income taxes, which are highly volatile.” When the economy turns down, what will happen to all of Gov. Huntsman’s celebrated education spending increases?
Ah, but why worry about that? Right now the state is flush with cash. Let’s spend it!
Indeed, in a democratic society, we have the government we deserve.