- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A state commission has recommended that Utah stop automatically funneling some sales tax revenue toward road and water projects so lawmakers can instead debate whether the money should go toward other needs.

The 16-member Utah Tax Review Commission unanimously recommended on Thursday that the state drop 15 of 16 sales tax earmarks starting in July. That’s when the next budget year begins. The commission also recommended that Utah move away from earmarks in general.

Curtis Trader, chairman of the Utah Tax Review Commission, said that when the money is automatically funneled to a project, there is less scrutiny about the need and use of the funds.

This year, the earmarks sent about $460 million to roads, according to The Salt Lake Tribune (http://bit.ly/1kloD9f). That’s about 20 percent of all state sales tax money. Another $32 million was swept toward water and agriculture projects.

The nonprofit Utah Taxpayers Association, a tax watchdog group, agrees with the commission that the earmarks should be scrapped. “Earmarks tie the hands of legislators in making a budget,” Utah Taxpayers Association Vice President Billy Hesterman said.

One earmark scoops up 30 percent of all new sales tax growth for roads, which means that money isn’t available for social programs like Medicaid, said Steve Erickson, a lobbyist for Crossroads Urban Center, which helps and advocates for the poor. Ericksons said he’d like to see lawmakers drop that earmark.

“That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to build roads or that we’re not going to pay off bonds (for road projects),” Erickson said. “It means that we’re going to have to do this in the normal budget process rather than setting these earmarks aside as untouchable and as of the highest priority.”

State officials whose agencies benefit from the earmarks say the automatic sweeps protect vital projects. Utah Department of Transportation Deputy Director Shane Marshall said the earmarks ensure Utah will pay off bonds for recent highway construction and will keep future construction on schedule.

The commission has recommended that Utah preserve one earmark that sends $32 million a year to transportation because it was part of a political compromise divvying up revenues from the gas tax.

Commission member John Valentine said dropping that earmark would force officials to reconfigure a complicated formula for spending gas tax money.

Lawmakers on a tax committee will consider the recommendations on Nov. 18.

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com

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