Budget deal: Utah still addicted to the federal trough


A year and a half ago I wrote an article for the Standard-Examiner about how Utah is addicted to federal dollars. Since then, nothing has changed. The federal budget deal has again brought this issue to our attention.

A Deseret News article yesterday highlighted how Utah Transit Authority officials, “advocates for Utah’s poor and disabled,” leaders of the Utah Public Employees Association, Hill Air Force Base officials, and State Superintendent Larry Shumway are concerned that the newly signed budget deal could decrease federal funds available for the programs they support. In a related article, Mayor Ralph Becker expressed concerns that the budget stalemate could jeopardize $26 million promised for Salt Lake City’s two-mile streetcar extension.

Federal dollars have become ingrained in just about every aspect of Utah government. [pullquote]Federal dollars have become ingrained in just about every aspect of Utah government.[/pullquote]

How much do these advocates and their causes actually stand to lose? The details of the budget deal are still being worked out, but we do know how much in federal funds Utah has received in the past.

In fiscal year 2009, Utah state and local governments received $3.9 billion in federal aid, which was a 154 percent increase from 1998. Notable programs that received federal funds included the following:

  • Health and human services — $1.9 billion
  • Transportation — $694 million
  • Public education — $371 million
  • Food and nutrition — $188 million
  • Housing — $104 million

In fiscal year 2009, 26 percent of the state budget came from federal funds, up from 23 percent in 1998.

Is there any good reason for Utah to reject federal funds?

Some Utahns might argue that we’re paying taxes (or future taxes) on federal spending, so we deserve our piece of the federal pie and should accept it without question. What they often fail to consider is whether these funds come with any obligations. Certainly, drinking from the federal trough involves more than just lapping up billions of dollars at will.

Most federal dollars come with regulatory strings attached. In these cases, we must give up our autonomy in exchange for federal money. The negative effects of this tradeoff are clear when we examine programs like No Child Left Behind (NCLB), from which Utahns have been struggling for almost a decade to gain exemptions. NCLB is a 669-page law that stifles innovation in Utah’s public schools and contributes to standardizing public education when what we need is individualized education.

This year, we also requested a waiver from Medicaid to gain flexibility to implement the cost-saving ideas of Senator Dan Liljenquist (R-Dist. 23). Despite our frustration with these federal programs, we continue to burden ourselves with Washington’s one-size-fits-all solutions simply because they come with “free money.”

As I wrote in 2009:

“Free” money is not always worth the high price to obtain it.  Just like government aid to individuals, federal aid to states requires too great a sacrifice in independence.

And further:

Drinking from the federal keg not only limits freedom but also diminishes public accountability.  When state and federal lawmakers share responsibility for federally-funded programs, voters don’t know who to hold accountable.  Federal aid also encourages state and local lawmakers to increase spending (often permanently) in order to maximize the aid they can receive.

Federalism – state independence from national government – is a principle that has helpedAmericaprosper and endure.  Utahns should opt out of burdensome federal programs in order to remain free and prosperous.

Truly, the “milk and honey” flowing from Washington is not worth the price.