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1997 State Legislature


January 7, 1998


The 1997 Utah State Legislature & Limited Government

By Daniel B. Newby

On the eve of another state legislative session, when numerous issues regarding the size and role of government will be debated, it is appropriate to analyze last year's legislative session and evaluate it against the standards of limited government. Did last year's legislature expand or decrease the size and scope of government? Of particular interest is the relative size of the state budget, targets of state funding, and legislation related to individual freedoms.

In 1997, the legislature increased state government spending to $5.98 billion, up 9.3 percent from the previous year, according to the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst. This increase far outpaces an estimated population increase of 2.31 percent (source: Utah Population Estimates Committee) and an inflation increase of 1.7 percent (source: First Security Bank). With Utah's estimated population of 2.05 million, state government spending amounted to $2,917 per capita, or $11,668 per family of four. It should be noted that many legislators did take a stand against the governor's even greater budget proposal, and did so in the face of immense pressure by the press and special interest groups. These figures indicate, however, that the 1997 state legislature fell short in leading the way toward a fiscally smaller state government.

The legislature continued an ongoing trend of funding nonessential projects that target only certain segments of the population, including:

  • $1,500,000 to construct the Sevier Valley Special Events Center (House Bill 378 and Senate Bill 2);
  • $900,000 to the Department of Community and Economic Development to preserve certain buildings of the original Brigham Young Academy (Senate Bill 48);
  • $500,000 to construct an outdoor arena at the Weber County Fairgrounds (House Bill 283);
  • $300,000 to establish "a permanent Utah Welcome Center and Highway Rest Stop to commemorate the American West... in Cache County" (House Bill 292);
  • $300,000 to the Eccles Community Art Center for a new building (Senate Bill 105);
  • $300,000 to expand a children's art facility at the Springville Museum of Art (House Bill 93).

The justification behind this unrestrained spending of taxpayer money is the belief that the state government has the legitimate role of redistributing wealth to provide for all the wants of the people. Language in House Bill 378 reflects this philosophy:

"It is the intent of the legislature that funding be provided through bonding... for construction of the Sevier Valley Special Events Center, to help fulfill the statewide public purpose of meeting the cultural and recreational needs of the citizens of the state" (italics added).

This reasoning directly contradicts founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, who advised that,

"If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy."

This pattern of behavior by the state legislature threatens to reduce counties and cities to fighting each other for state funding, just as states now compete with one another for federal funding. As the dole grows to provide nonessential wants, local government and citizens will become more determined to "get their fair share." In this no-win war, the day is not far distant when Utah's state capitol will be viewed as negatively as Washington, D.C.

Perhaps the most unfortunate state legislation in 1997 centered on basic human rights. Though legislators defeated numerous proposals that would have been far more damaging to individual liberties, several significant incursions managed to slip through the radar screen.

For instance, due to House Bill 67, school districts are now required to "annually evaluate the need to use part of their Title 1 funds for preschool literacy programs." This extends state control over local school districts through increased reading assessment testing and remediation requirements. The bill also stipulates that "planned instruction shall include... early and explicit teaching of phonetic decoding skills." This kind of legislation has contributed to the transformation of our public schools from locally run entities into institutions ruled by a centralized state power.

Churches were also harmed by expanding state regulation. House Bill 124, "Licensing of Day Care Facilities," removed an exemption from licensing requirements for parochial child care institutions. Religious institutions, once considered the pillars of our society, have been declared unfit to care for children without state licensing and monitoring. The steps Utah has taken toward more government, nonessential funding, and less freedom did not happen solely during the 1997 legislative session. Rather, they are the evidences of a slow, incremental abandonment of the principles of limited government. As James Madison forewarned:

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations... This danger ought to be wisely guarded against."

This session, legislators need to regroup and recommit themselves to reverse the momentum toward larger, more intrusive government. Legislative actions that expand the size and scope of government will ultimately threaten the citizen's basic right to govern himself.

One proposed solution to this inequitable arrangement is to require PACs to pay the taxpayers back for collecting their monies. However, taxpayers who own the collection mechanism would still be forced to permit the use of this resource for PACs. Monetary compensation does not justify this use of force against the taxpayer. The correct solution is to remove taxpayers from the entire PAC collection process. This would allow PACs to "sink or swim" based upon their own merits, not on the coercive influence of government intervention.

State legislators should free the taxpayers from their unwilling role in the collection of these funds. Public employees who wish to contribute to a PAC of their choice may write out a personal check. Members' private donations will demonstrate how legitimate, acceptable, and attractive these PAC agendas really are.

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Daniel B. Newby wrote this article while employed as Director of Operations & Development for the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based public policy research institute.

Permission to reprint this article in whole or in part is granted provided credit is given to the author and to the Sutherland Institute.

Disclaimer: Newby left the Sutherland Institute on January 28, 2003, and has conducted all his efforts since that time as a private citizen.  The Sutherland Institute has officially and publicly disavowed and distanced itself from Newby's political views, tone, and activities.  As a courtesy to the Sutherland Institute, we have posted their e-mail on the matter.


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