Free Market

Your Money and Earmarks in Utah: The Utah State Budget Process

Part One in the “Dollars and Nonsense” Series. Click here for part two.

In a recent op-ed we highlighted the importance of paying attention, pointing out that government’s actions, whether transparent or deceptive, pose a threat to our liberty. Of all the things we should pay attention to, the budgeting and appropriations process is among the most critical. This, of course, is the process whereby your elected representatives spend your money after confiscating it from you through taxes.

Sifting through and understanding the legislative budgeting process can be complicated as all the relevant information is not necessarily in one place. In an effort to help taxpayers make better sense of where their money is being spent outside of core government activities—and to peel back the curtain on the sausage grinder that is the legislature—we have compiled relevant data from multiple sources into the following document:

Click here to see the data compiled on recent appropriations items from the 2014 legislative session for FY2015.

In addition to the “base” annual budget for recurring and ongoing expenditures, legislators can request appropriations to expend money on specific spending items in either “one-time” or “ongoing” amounts. When dollars are set aside for a very specific purpose or program we call it an earmark because those funds are reserved for that particular purpose, as opposed to general budget funds for an agency or department that might be used on any number of programs at the discretion of the agency.

In the first tab we use the example of the Business, Economic Development, and Labor Appropriations Subcommittee (BEDL) to show you the progression of how an appropriations request by a particular group becomes a beneficiary of your money. As legislators hear presentations and requests from various government agencies and public or private groups across the state, they then place requests for appropriations on a list and ultimately they vote on how much money they recommend to be spent for each item. The BEDL committee is particularly interesting because its members appropriate money for all sorts of blatantly non-governmental functions like museums and film festivals—all under the category of either “economic development” or “heritage and arts,” of course.

BEDL started with a preliminary list of requests and then voted the following week to make final recommendations to the Executive Appropriations Committee who draft the various budget bills. What is interesting is how one week’s time helped cool passions and trimmed nearly $50 million off of the previous week’s list! It’s amazing what one week can do to spending ambitions. Another interesting observation is how almost half of the requests changed funding sources either from ongoing funding requests to one-time requests or vice versa. This is particularly troubling since ongoing funds, once approved in the first year, can sneak into the following year’s base budget—thereby turning an earmark into a perpetual expenditure. It may be perceived as easier to gain approval for a mere one-time appropriation than an ongoing one, thus some lawmakers might switch funding request types from ongoing to one-time as a strategic negotiation concession in order to obtain approval for the requested funds.

Another detail worth noting is that despite the committee’s efforts to self-police appropriation levels and trim their final recommendations, the final appropriation bills added nearly $15 million dollars to the committee’s final recommendations—some of which were related to new laws or bills that required money for implementation. However, a full ten percent of this increase ($1.5M) was to help Weber County purchase a gun range that legislators tested out during an evening event. Other appropriated earmarks include over a million dollars for various museums, a million dollars for the Sundance Film Festival, $750,000 for the sports commission, hundreds of thousands for various theaters, hundreds of thousands for the Utah Symphony and other music events, and even a half million dollars for the Governor’s “Your Future” campaign through Envision Utah. Between the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the Department of Heritage and Arts alone, the BEDL subcommittee usually oversees the appropriation of over $50 million from the General Fund annually on such programs. General Fund dollars come from income and sales tax revenue and are traditionally thought to be intended for core government functions, while other alternative revenue sources and fees might be earmarked for extraneous or targeted programs, as in the example of the transportation fund which is based on gasoline tax revenue.

Another interesting tab in our data sheet lists all of the special events during the legislative session where lobbyists and special interest groups hosted legislators for lunches, dinners, receptions, and other activities. You may notice that many groups seeking your public funds through appropriations were keen to arrange these events in order to conduct some show-and-tell for their various causes and projects.

After reviewing the appropriation requests and budget line items for this year, curiosity got the better of us and we began digging into previous years. We have included excerpts from the 2013 appropriations for FY2014 which show a curiously similar pattern of earmarks including some line items funded for 2014 as a “one-time” appropriation despite the same organization getting another “one-time” funding measure again for FY2015. Perhaps a redefinition of “one-time” is needed.

Indeed, no man’s money is safe when the legislature is in session and diligent watchfulness is required if we are to reduce fiscal nonsense. At Libertas Institute, we attempt to assist and facilitate your diligent watchfulness by bringing issues like these to your attention.

If you are more interested in learning how your dollars are spent in Utah you can also obtain a “receipt” itemizing the various government programs that your tax dollars fund from Utah’s fiscal transparency site.