Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What does fiscal responsibility mean to you? And to Utah?

Lawmakers at work on the floor of the Utah State Senate, Jan. 18, 2022.
Ivana Martinez
Lawmakers at work on the floor of the Utah State Senate, Jan. 18, 2022.

The term "fiscal responsibility" is constantly thrown around by lawmakers and lobbyists. With Utah’s 2023 legislative session fast approaching, what do the words really mean?

“It's a completely subjective term based on your ideology,” said Utah Taxpayers Association Vice President of Research and Policy Malah Armstrong. “But in our opinion, it would definitely be to use the money that you have responsibly and use it for things that are actually functionally necessary and that the majority of people would agree is necessary.”

To Armstrong, the question then becomes what is actually necessary?

For example, Republican politicians typically look for ways to cut taxes, while Democrats argue that tax money should go toward bolstering public services and government programs. Both sides would say their respective ideas are fiscally responsible.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox laid out his own philosophy in a December Twitter thread. Things like continuing to pay off the state’s debt, not using one-time funding to pay for long-term projects and giving money back to Utahns who “can spend it better than [the] government” can.

The debate over what is and isn’t necessary spending isn’t a new one, either.

“They were writing about the exact same things [100 years ago] that we're writing about now,” said Utah Taxpayer Association President Rusty Cannon. “Government spending is out of hand. Why are we using money for this? You know, essentially the same general conversation. The specifics are different and the dollar amounts are vastly different, but it's the same conversation 100 years later.”

Disputes over money in the United States are as old as the country itself. After the American Revolution, the country and the states were about $80 million in debt, and there were sharp disagreements over what to do about it. Ultimately, Congress supported Alexander Hamilton’s plan for the federal government to take on the debt of all the states. But the fights hardly stopped there.

“You go back to the early republic, for example, parties like the Whigs believed in infrastructure projects like national roads,” said Utah State University Associate Professor of American History Lawrence Culver. “Other parties like the Democrats didn't want the government spending money on things like that. Later, you get debates over, for example, constructing the transcontinental railroad."

Those debates continued through the Civil War, the Great Depression and still to this day. The stage is set for a lively debate in Utah in the coming weeks, but what succeeds and what fails in the legislature will ultimately come down to the priorities of each individual lawmaker.

For 2023, there will be a debate over increasing teacher salaries. Gov. Cox also wants the legislature to fund free public transit for a year and set aside $150 million for affordable housing projects. There’s also a Great Salt Lake to save.

On top of that and everything else contained in the state budget, lawmakers are (again) looking to give Utahns a tax cut.

“Your fiscal irresponsibility is my perfectly logical and worthwhile project,” said Culver. “And of course, you say fiscal responsibility and everybody's in favor of it, right? Who's not in favor of fiscal responsibility? But when you scratch the surface of it, that immediately gets you into these very troublesome questions. OK, well, what are we not going to spend money on? Or how are we going to fund the money we do plan to spend? And that immediately gets contentious. And the priorities are going to vary from politician to politician and party to party and state to state.”

The 2023 general session starts Jan. 17.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.