Though the official session does not convene until Jan. 26, the legislature began holding appropriation committee hearings on Monday of last week. The process will continue next Wednesday. Budgetary matters will be the dominant focus of the 2009 legislature. It now appears that revenue for the 2010 fiscal year will be down about $350 million from where it was for 2008. That is almost 19 percent.
I sit on the higher education appropriation committee. We heard testimony from each of the presidents of the 10 public higher education institutions in our state. Their assigned task was to describe how their respective institutions could deal with the revenue shortfall. They received a 4 percent cut in September and were asked to identify how they could cut an additional 3 percent to get us through this fiscal year plus another 12 percent, for a total of 19 percent, to get us through fiscal year 2010 which starts on the first of July.
I have great respect and empathy for the college and university presidents. They are extremely fine public servants. Their challenge is compounded by the fact that virtually every institution is currently experiencing an increase in student enrollment. That is typical during an economic downturn when jobs are scarce and people are motivated to obtain more education.
Unlike the federal government, Utah cannot deficit spend. Our constitution mandates a balanced budget. Our options are limited to cutting expenditures; adjusting the tax code to raise additional funds; tapping the rainy day fund; or bonding for some projects thereby making additional revenue available for current needs.
I believe sound public policy and duty require us to consider all of these options or a combination thereof. Even then, we can only partially soften the pain. There is a point where we move from "belt-tightening" to serious injury. Most of our colleges and universities have histories that date to the 1800s. They have played a major role in making Utah an attractive place in which to live and do business. They have often and accurately been referred to as the "economic engine" that drives progress. It would be a serious mistake to compromise their capacity to help move the state forward.
The challenge facing higher education applies in many areas of state government including public education. During the weeks that follow, I will try to supply some insight into other areas of importance to the state and particularly rural Utah.
On the brighter side, Utah remains better off than most of her sister states, some of whom are considering bonding to make payroll. That seems a sure path to economic self-destruction. We won't do that, and we won't give up our station as the leader in responsible governance, but it won't be easy.