Utah votes to save some oil and gas taxes

Recount board confirms Utah voters agreed to divert some oil and gas riches to permanent fund

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A ballot recount Monday confirmed that Utah voters narrowly agreed to put about $36 million of oil and gas riches into a permanent fund for safekeeping.

In certifying final results of the Nov. 6 election, the Utah State Board of Canvassers also found the number of Utah voters surpassed 1 million for the first time in state history. The turnout of just over 80 percent nearly matched a record set in 1992.

The canvassing board also made official the razor-thin election victory of incumbent Jim Matheson, a six-term Democrat in one of the country's most staunchly GOP districts.

Republicans banked heavily on Mia Love, the 36-year-old mayor of Saratoga Springs, pouring millions of dollars into her race. She lost by 768 votes out of more than 238,000 ballots.

The constitutional amendment requiring Utah to set aside a portion of its tax on oil, gas and mining was another election night cliffhanger. With more than 79,000 absentee and provisional ballots added to the mix Monday, the canvassing board confirmed it was a winner by barely 1 percentage point.

The measure forces elected officials to divert a portion of the severance tax into a permanent fund already fortified with tobacco settlement money.

That fund contains $123 million, the state treasurer's office said Monday.

States such as New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming do the same — and have saved billions of dollars for a rainy day. Utah's sponsor, Republican state Rep. Jim Nielson of Bountiful, says it's time for Utah to catch up and save for "terrible times."

"I like to think of it not as a rainy day fund but a hurricane fund for much more serious things," he said. It would take a three-quarter vote of the Utah House and Senate and the governor's signature to crack open the permanent fund for any purpose.

The more tax revenue Utah collects, the more the constitutional amendment requires it to save.

Utah takes in about $91 million on oil, gas and mineral development.

At that rate, Utah will set aside about $36 million a year for the permanent fund.

The new measure takes effect in 2016 — but Nielson hopes to get legislators to act sooner and voluntarily save some of the oil taxes. That's already allowed by a 2008 constitutional amendment that Nielson says hasn't worked out well, because elected officials made only one deposit and ignored it every other year.

Nielson argues it's a good time to ramp up savings with the recession fading and tax revenues growing in Utah. Gov. Gary Herbert recently announced Utah would have $421 million more to spend than anticipated for the next budget year, which starts July 1.

House Minority Leader David Litvack led opposition to the forced savings plan. He said Utah has other rainy day funds that grow by tens of millions of dollars in times of budget surpluses and have never dipped below $209 million.

A new savings plan saps Utah's flexibility to adjust to hard times, Litvack said.

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