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SALT LAKE CITY — As they inch closer to buckling down on this year's state budget, Utah legislative leaders are eyeing bonding to fund big-ticket infrastructure projects, facing over $1.1 billion in infrastructure requests alone.
"We are in talks with the Senate right now about bonding, and whether or not we will be bonding for infrastructure this year," House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told reporters Friday.
For now, major funding decisions hang in limbo until lawmakers receive updated revenue estimates, expected next week — though Wilson said there might be a bump in expected revenue due to an economy faring better than expected amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's probably not going to surprise most of us if we see our estimates increase a little bit given how healthy the economy seems to be performing," he said. "But time will tell."
One thing's for sure, Wilson and House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said. As usual, more funding requests have been filed than money is available. Current estimates tell lawmakers they have roughly $90 million of ongoing money and nearly $1 billion in one-time money available for appropriation.
"I'll tell you what," Wilson said. "We are over subscribed."
The Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee alone has prioritized over $1.1 billion in one-time requests, a figure the speaker called "mind-boggling."
Included on that committee's long list of priority requests is $150 million to double-track FrontRunner — an item for which Gov. Spencer Cox's budget recommended $350 million. Also included is $50 million to address traffic gridlock in the Wasatch canyons, matching Cox's budget recommendation to potentially widen Wasatch Boulevard, add avalanche snow sheds or maybe build a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The committee has also prioritized another Cox recommendation: $6 million to fund rapid electric vehicle charging stations in rural Utah, along with dozens of other requests.
Wilson said legislators have some "tough decisions" to make over the next week, and many of those decisions will hinge on how much extra revenue may be projected. "So time will tell.
"Listen, if we go back and just put back in the money we took out of buildings that we cut out of the budget last year, that's $200 million," Wilson said, pointing to projects that were paused amid concerns of a recession due to the pandemic.
"To double-track FrontRunner is another $350 million," Wilson added. "We've got a long, long list of transportation projects that need to be built across the state. Then you've got a few regional economic drivers, whether it's the (Utah Inland Port Authority) or the Point of the Mountain Authority that probably warrants state investment."
Schultz noted Utah is in an "unbelievable position" with its "very low debt."
"So we've got some room there where we can do a bond and still remain very financially conservative and still keep the state in a great place as far as our AAA bond rating," Schultz said, noting that because the state pays off building bonds within six years and roads within 15 years, "every year we have several million dollars of debt that drops off."
"So when we talk about bonding, we're not necessary talking about increasing the debt on a large scale," he added. "It would pretty well maintain where we're currently at." Potential tax cuts
Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to drill down on what a possible tax cut could look like this year, honing in on three bills with price tags totaling over $100 million — already more than the $80 million lawmakers have set aside for some sort of tax relief this year.
Sen. Wayne Harper's $43 million SB11 would reduce income taxes for Utahns on Social Security and military retirement. It's already cleared the Senate, and is waiting to be heard in a House committee.
Another bill, Rep. Walt Brooks' $17.7 million HB86, would enact a tax credit for retirement and Social Security income. It's waiting to be heard in the Senate.
There's also Rep. Candice Pierucci's $23.8 million HB161, which would exempt military retirement income and survivor benefits from income tax. The House passed it unanimously. It's now waiting to be heard in the Senate.
And there's Sen. Lincoln Fillmore's roughly $53 million SB153, which would restore the dependent exemption that was lost in federal tax changes several years ago. The bill won a unanimous favorable recommendation on Friday and is waiting to be heard by the full Senate.
"What I think is remarkable about these tax cut bills is we're doing this in the wake of what happened in our country over the last 12 months," Wilson said, pointing to the pandemic. "Our ability to do this, I think, speaks volumes about the strength of Utah and our ... healthy position as a state."
Though the idea of a $250 million across-the-board income tax rate cut for all Utahns has been floated this year on Capitol Hill, legislative leaders have said it's not likely.
"We've already got about a $100 million tax cut working its way through the system," Wilson said, pointing to those bills. "Whether or not we choose to add to that over the course of the next few weeks I think will be an interesting conversation. There's always a balance, though, because we're the fastest-growing state in the country, and we've got to invest in roads and rail and water, and we've got to be careful to strike the right balance."
To also enact an income tax rate cut would bring the tax relief package to over $350 million Schultz noted. He added that he has "concerns" with the $250 million proposal because it would "essentially take money that we're not sure we're going to have in the future."
"That's a very slippery slope," Schultz said. "And so I think we just need to be really cautious around that."
Sen. Don Ipson, vice chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, told reporters the process needs to play out.
"We'll do our work," he said, "and I think we'll come out with a balanced budget that the people will love — some more than others."
Contributing: Ashley Imlay, Deseret News