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Advocates call on state to tap rainy day fund rather than cut social services and education

Utah advocates who work with children and vulnerable populations are calling on lawmakers to dip into the state’s rainy day reserves rather than implement budget cuts that would disproportionately impact people who ‘they serve.

The call from 18 Utah nonprofits that work with children in poverty, homeless people, refugees and people with disabilities comes ahead of a special session scheduled for next week, when state lawmakers are about to do potentially deep budget cuts as the economy reels from the coronavirus pandemic.

The achievement of hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts” to education, public health, poverty alleviation, housing, disability services, homeless services and other critical needs amid ‘a pandemic and a recession’ would have an impact ‘on low-income people, minorities and rural areas’. Utahns,” Matthew Weinstein of Voices for Utah Children said during a virtual press conference Thursday.

And it could also “deepen the recession,” he said, “and slow our recovery because of all the job losses that would result.”

While Utah has a strong rainy day fund, legislative tax analysts say it’s not as high as the $5.4 billion cited by supporters at their press conference. This figure represents all budgetary reserves – not just rainy day funds – over a five-year period, which means not everything is available in a year.

In reality, the state probably somewhere in the ballpark of $1.7 billion at stake in rainy day funds between its working capital and its operating reserves. Other reserves have statutory limitations that make them more difficult to access.

Proponents want the state to use between 10% and 30% of the money that has been set aside to fill future budget shortfalls.

Senate Speaker Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said Thursday that legislative leaders are heeding calls from the public and drafting a release plan early next week that would keep education and social services as “harmless as possible” with the help of state labor. rainy day fund of nearly $900 million.

As he called for a special session next week, Gov. Gary Herbert said he also hoped the schools budget would remain intact.

“With a little tightening of our belt, which is going to be necessary, hopefully we can keep education harmless, for example, and not have to cut our education budget,” he said. “I think they – teachers and people involved in education – have proven to be very willing to adapt to challenges, innovate and find better ways of doing things.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) In this April 16, 2020 file photo, Senate Speaker Stuart Adams, R-Layton and Senate staff conduct business during the Legislature’s first-ever digital special session from Utah to the Capitol. Adams has been a proponent of state stockpiling of malaria drugs as a potential treatment for COVID-19, though medical professionals have warned against it.

State appropriations subcommittees met last month to prepare recommended cuts of 2%, 5% and 10% to the state’s $7.6 billion base budget in light of declining state revenues as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re hoping a 10% exclusion is the worst case scenario, but they won’t know for sure until new revenue numbers come in early next week.

Staffers at the Office of the Legislative Tax Analyst currently expect revenue to be $200 million to $600 million lower for the current fiscal year than they estimated in February. For the upcoming budget year, beginning July 1, they expect revenue to be $600 million lower to $1.3 billion.

Even the smallest of cuts to offset those losses could come at a cost, especially to public education and social services, which make up the biggest chunks of the state budget. A 2% scenario would require about $76 million in cuts to public education and $23 million to social services.

The Rainy Day Fund is meant to help the state through tough times like these, advocates say — and it pays enough without diminishing the resources people need now more than ever amid the coronavirus pandemic. high unemployment and uncertain economic times.

Social service programs “help families weather recessions and ensure faster overall economic recovery,” said Alex Cragun, food security advocate at Utahns Against Hunger. “As a state, we are fortunate to have saved wisely for budget deficits, and we urge the Utah Legislature to consider using our rainy day funds” to ensure these programs are continuing.

William Cosgrove, member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Utah Chaptersaid cuts to education would hurt the state’s “shabby and already underfunded public schools.”

“Utah already has worst-funded schools in all states,” he said. “We’ve already cut out any fat or inefficiencies, and any further reduction will be in bone and muscle.”

Adams said he recognizes the importance of investing in the future of the state through the education budget, noting that “if you don’t invest in that human capital, your future, you can maybe solve your problems today, but you will have more problems to come.”

And he noted the increased need for social services as the coronavirus pandemic continues. The pandemic may be physical, he said, but social distancing measures and other efforts to curb the spread of the virus are also affecting people’s mental health.

“It would be very difficult to cut those budgets right now when we are in a situation that makes this more acute,” he said.

But even as some lawmakers mull over the use of the rainy day fund, others worry it may be too early to dip into the reserves. They are bracing for the possibility that the economic downturn facing the state as a result of the current pandemic could last for years.

Senator Jerry Stevenson, chairman of the executive appropriations committee, acknowledged that “everything is under review” – including the use of money the state has set aside – as lawmakers scramble to readjust budgets.

But “I personally don’t think now is the time to spend that money,” the Layton Republican said, noting that there are other ways to balance the numbers.

“We have a long winter ahead of us,” Stevenson said. “If you know a long winter is coming, you go get a blanket and stay warm on a cold October night. You don’t take the doors off your house and burn them for firewood. You keep all these doors open [as long as] you can do this until you have to do something drastic.

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