If you’ve been following the ongoing debate regarding funding for K-12 education, you probably have seen Libertas make the argument that what is truly needed is a reprioritization of current state tax revenue. The question then becomes, how can Utah actually accomplish this? How would Utah legislators sit down and shift spending priorities in the state budget without the need for tax increases?
Here is an explanation of an idea that is gaining traction with the Utah Legislature that could help make huge strides towards this goal: zero-based budgeting.
Over the past few years in Utah, there has been a constant debate over state revenues and why so many tax increases are supposedly needed. This election season has been no different. Voters will consider not one, but two different tax increases in the form of a gas tax for education (Question 1) and a sales tax for medicaid expansion (Prop 3).
What Utahns often don’t realize is that Utah’s state budget has ballooned to nearly $17 billion a year. While some of that growth is tied to inflation and the growth of the population in Utah, much of it has to do with a steady flow of new tax increases which result in more unnecessary government programs, pet projects, and waste.
All the while we are told that there is not enough money for public education. What proponents of new tax increases seem to miss is that Utah has a budget prioritization and spending problem—not a revenue problem.
That’s where zero-based budgeting comes into the picture. The idea is quite simple. Instead of starting the budgeting process with last year’s budget and simply adding (and very rarely subtracting) to it, legislative committees would start fresh, from zero. The most important programs would be identified and funded first, thereby beginning to make it clear what programs are essential and what programs are not.
Instead of department heads coming and asking the legislature for a standard 2% increase, they would need to justify every dollar that they spend. It would also allow the Utah Legislature to fund education first, if it so chose. Rather than increasing taxes, they could more easily identify non-essential programs and waste that could be cut. The money could then be used to fund public education and perhaps a portion could even be given back to Utahns via a tax cut.