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Does Utah have state debt? | Opinion

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The Utah Legislature has concluded its first week of the 2024 session. The news media and numerous interest groups are closely monitoring the activities. As veteran observers (that means we’re really old), your columnists have a few thoughts about what we think will be a very interesting and productive session.

Both right-wing and left-wing forces are already hammering lawmakers on specific topics. But they aren’t mentioning the big picture, the context in which this session goes forth. The reality is that Utah government has been managed very well, and Utah is in remarkable financial shape in both the public and private sectors. Long-term debt is quickly being paid off, the state is paying mostly cash for infrastructure projects (including transportation, water conservation, the Great Salt Lake and housing solutions), education and social services are adequately funded and tax cuts are being provided. The state also maintains healthy emergency reserves. 

Why does this responsible conduct capture little attention in comparison to the so-called “culture wars”? Why is financial management such a high priority for the governor and Legislature?

Pignanelli: “Few things are brought to a successful issue by impetuous desire, but most by calm and prudent forethought.” — Thucydides, 460–400 BC  

Because I am a “gentile” who loves Utah and its people, I have no hesitation to make the public statements that many of my fellow citizens cannot. We have a heritage bestowed by the refugees fleeing religious persecution who began arriving in 1847, and then for the next 50 years confronted tremendous challenges, especially from the overbearing federal government. The prosperity achieved by the state’s founders is miraculous and not forgotten. Therefore, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a legacy of safeguarding this inheritance through a dedicated work ethic and a focus on prudent responsible management. These virtues are also ingrained in Utahns that are not members of that faith (I was raised to follow them). Despite differences, we are united to fulfill a common vision reflected in the state’s accomplishments.

These achievements are relatively unfamiliar as most officials rarely advertise them. Further, the media tends to focus on the quirks of the legislative process while the extreme political fringes find fault in everything.

My children share the names of their mother’s handcart and oxcart pioneer ancestors, who I believe are pleased this wonderful bequest lives through them.

Webb: California faces a $58 billion deficit. Our neighbor Arizona has a $1 billion deficit. By contrast, even with a small downturn in revenue this year, Utah is flush with cash. Most people don’t understand the extent of Utah’s financial health. By paying off state debt, money previously used for interest payments is available for state needs. By paying cash for infrastructure projects with ongoing funds, instead of bonding, Utah has a multibillion dollar “working rainy day fund.”

That means if hard economic times occur and tax revenue takes a big hit, Utah can simply stop spending so much on infrastructure, and hundreds of millions of dollars will be available for critical state needs like education and social services. “We are ready for anything,” Senate President Stuart Adams told me.

Utah’s overall financial condition is the best in the nation, and better than I’ve seen in more than 40 years of watching the Legislature.

Some reporters and pundits are criticizing legislators for grandstanding on “message” bills and throwing red meat to their hardline party activists. Is this a problem that will interfere with the legislative process?

Pignanelli: The tactic of elected and appointed leaders making speeches and proposing actions that appeal to their political bases is at least 5,000 years old. Every session fosters criticism about these antics. But unlike Congress — which excels at the sport — our state legislators have this fun but also accomplish a great deal in 45 days. Welcome to representative democracy.

Webb: This is, no doubt, a very conservative legislature. But it is conservatism with the proper dose of good sense and practicality. I like conservatives who are also sensible and pragmatic. It’s important to remember, as I’ve written many times previously, that the proper way to judge a legislature is by the final product — the bills that are ultimately passed and signed — not by any questionable bill introduced, strange testimony given in a committee hearing, or an eyebrow-raising speech delivered on the House floor.

In a legislative body with 104 independently-elected members, each with strong opinions and ideologies, all sorts of weird things are going to come up. But, for the most part, only sensible legislation will survive the legislative gauntlet. Most of the outrageous stuff will be weeded out.

In a Jan. 11 editorial, this paper warned of impending doom because the federal government is in a fiscal mess. Why is Utah so good at this?

Pignanelli: Citizens are invited to watch (but few really do) the legislative appropriations process in which past and proposed expenditures are scrutinized, sometimes to an annoying degree. This is a product of the part-time legislative dynamic. Congress is devoid of such needed pressures.

Webb: The dramatic contrast in management excellence raises the question: Why do we continue to centralize more and more power at the federal level, which is dysfunctional and broke?

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: [email protected]. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: [email protected].

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