Speaker Lockhart: Road needs require override of veto

The legislature will meet in a rare veto override session on Friday. The key issue: transportation funding and Senate Bill 229.

It’s not surprising that the need for this bill is misunderstood or misconstrued by detractors. Responsible budgeting on a statewide level is a complicated matter not easily reduced to a soundbite. Budget priorities are not a new phenomenon. The largest and strongest priority in Utah is the Constitutional earmark of all income tax for education.

Like education, building infrastructure is a key obligation of state government. SB 229 sets aside a portion of any increase in sales tax revenue growth toward transportation.

That new money — about $60 million over the next several years — would be used for road projects across the state including lane expansions and filling potholes. It’s important to note that right now roughly 60 percent of all state roads are unmaintained due to lack of funds.

SB 229 absolutely does not and will not tie lawmakers’ hands for future spending decisions. On the contrary, this policy maintains flexibility in our budgeting process. When and only when the economy grows, will the legislature commit more money to transportation. SB 229 also signals to the private sector that we are serious about infrastructure and the jobs that will be maintained and created with further investment.

If the economy falters, SB 229 leaves the door open to moving those sales tax funds to other critical areas of the budget. It’s a process we have used many times including in each of the past three years.

In 2009, we moved $35 million from transportation projects; in 2010, it was $39 million. For the 2011 budget, we moved $113 million from road projects into higher education to help with needed buildings.

Where the legislature’s hands actually get tied is when dollars are committed to other ongoing state programs that force us into long-term commitments. SB 229 ensures sound fiscal responsibility while maintaining the reputation for budgetary restraint Utah has worked so hard to earn.

Infrastructure investment is critical to lawmakers who see transportation as an economic driver for the state. Citizens need good roads to get to work. Businesses need effective pathways to move goods and services. And tourists and residents alike need easy and adequate access to all of Utah’s natural wonders. Economic development, as the governor has told us many times, is key to the state’s success. When the economy improves and thrives, jobs are created, incomes go up and revenue for education and other needs increases.

Targeting some growth money for roads also helps us plan for future projects and reduce the need for a gas tax increase. Legitimate and compelling arguments exist on both sides of that debate. It deserves sincere and significant time and discussion.

The legislature should not and will not be backed into a corner where it has no options and where the necessary debate doesn’t take place.

We will not be forced into a tax increase at any time. Wise stewardship of the taxpayer’s dollar requires us to think outside the box for ways of funding critical needs with the current tax rates and existing revenue streams.

The legislature’s single most important duty is to appropriate the taxpayer’s money.

We take this responsibility very seriously. We will continue to base our funding decisions on constitutional and statutory requirements, accurate data and citizen input.

What we will not do is ignore our duty to build infrastructure or be blown about by political winds and special interests. That is why I believe the governor’s veto of SB 229 will be overridden on Friday.