SALT LAKE CITY – As Utah legislators slashed hundreds of millions of dollars to balance the state budget, lawmakers held on to one perk for themselves and thirsty state workers who survived the cuts: bottled water.
An Associated Press review of state finance records shows that Utah state agencies, excluding public colleges and universities, have spent more than $220,000 on bottled water since July.
While it's only a small portion of the $5.1 billion in state funds budgeted for this fiscal year, it's more than twice as much as the governor earns a year, and scores of programs have seen smaller amounts than that cut from their budgets in the past year.
States across the country are coming under increasing pressure to stop using bottled water as they look to save money and protect the environment by using fewer plastic bottles, which often end up in landfills and require large amounts of energy to produce and transport.
New York, Virginia and Illinois have each cut spending on bottled water while other states are considering it, including Connecticut.
Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based nonprofit corporate watchdog group, has urged all 50 governors to end their state contracts with bottled water suppliers and request that federal economic stimulus funds be spent upgrading public water systems.
"It's really important because when states purchase bottled water, they essentially send the wrong message," said Deborah Lapidus, the nonprofit's senior organizer. "It's sort of like a chef that won't eat his own food."
Messages left with Gov. Jon Huntsman's spokeswoman were not immediately returned Thursday.
Government records on the state's new accountability Web site, transparent.utah.gov, show that the Utah Department of Corrections has spent the most money on bottled water this year: $65,000. The Department of Transportation, at $31,000, and the Judicial Branch, at $25,000, are next.
Angie Welling, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said it's not surprising her agency spent the most on bottled water because it's one of the largest agencies in the state and many of its workers are in jobs requiring them to be physically active.
She said the department considered stopping the practice this past year to save money, but decided against it to keep employee morale from slipping further at a time employees were being asked to do more than ever because of staffing shortages.
"It was kind of a, 'If we have to do this, how bad has it gotten?"' Welling said.
Last year, the majority of about 250 mayors who attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Miami voted to phase out government use of bottled water.
San Francisco canceled its city spending on bottled water in 2007, saving nearly $500,000 annually. Seattle, which stopped buying bottled water last year, is saving as much as $57,000 annually. Salt Lake City stopped buying bottles for personal use in 2006, although the cost savings is unclear.
"It's a simple way we can help the environment in terms of not producing more bottles in the first place and not filling landfills down the road," said Mayor Ralph Becker's spokeswoman Helen Langan. "We're trying to lead by example."