Utah lawmakers turning down $61 million for jobless aid



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SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah State lawmakers are turning down $61 million in federal stimulus money meant to help the unemployed because legislators are concerned that it would hurt business owners. They say with the strings that are attached to it, the money just isn't worth it.

There's no question that, in the big picture, Utah's portion of the stimulus money is essential. At the Utah Foundation's annual meeting on the state's economy, there were forecasts about what's to come: Good news long term for Utah; shaky news short term.

Part of the reality the state has to face is that $1.7 billion of stimulus money isn't part of the long term, especially when it comes with strings attached.

Case in point: $61 million offered up to help provide unemployment benefits for people who don't qualify now, like part-time workers. The problem is the state would create a new benefit without a way to pay for it after the stimulus money is gone.

"We didn't want to accept some one-time stimulus money that would require us to start or maintain large programs that we couldn't finance into the future," said Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights.

Utah isn't alone. States like South Carolina and Texas rejected that very same stimulus money for the same reasons.

"The last thing they need right now is for the government to burden them with either taxes and expanded obligations," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

In the big picture, Utah's leaders have decided the state is better off without money that comes with strings attached. The City Creek Project downtown is evidence of the state's relative fiscal health, but as early as this summer hard decisions will need to be made.

"If there had been no stimulus, we would have had to cut programs or raise taxes or get the money from somewhere else," said Kelley Matthews, economist for Wells Fargo.

There are a lot of people who feel that higher taxes are inevitable in the near future, whether it's tobacco tax or gas tax, but lawmakers promise to hold off on that as long as they can.

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Story compiled with contributions from Richard Piatt and Mary Richards.

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