In the simmering fight over transportation dollars, legislative Democrats have aligned themselves much closer to GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. than their Republican counterparts, especially in the House.

Meanwhile, the majority party, in closed caucuses, took baby steps toward adopting the $8.6 billion fiscal 2005-2006 budget.

In a budget proposal announced Tuesday afternoon, leaders of the minority party recommended spending $40 million more on transportation needs. That's slightly higher than the $33 million proposed by Huntsman but less than half of the $85 million that House Republicans are pushing. Senate Republicans have yet to decide on a number.

Additionally, the Democrats, like the governor, are proposing using one-time revenues only, while House Republicans want to use ongoing revenues. GOP lawmakers, including some in the Senate, have warned that Utahns face tax increases unless transportation is adequately funded this session.

Instead, Democrats are pushing for additional education funding, including a 5 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit at the cost of $25 million. They also are pushing for funding to make the salaries of state employees, especially teachers, professors and Utah Highway Patrol troopers more equitable with other entities.

"We're all working with the same numbers, but the difference is we're working with different priorities," said Sen. Karen Hale, D-Salt Lake. "We've addressed our basic infrastructure: the people of our state."

While their budget is close to Huntsman's, the Democrats chose to invest new education money into the weighted pupil unit instead of a statewide math program or beginning teacher bonuses. Rep. Brad King, D-Price, said Democrats wanted to let school districts decide for themselves how to spend the additional money.

"It's important to have the decisions about how that money is spent be made on the local level," King said.

For the most part, the Democrats' budget proposal is very similar to Huntsman's proposal, including compensation and benefit increases for state employees, restoring funding for a number of human services and increasing economic development. In some cases, the intent is the same, but the actual numbers differ slightly, such as a $4 million difference for tourism promotion or a half-percent difference in state employee compensation.

House Republicans had to close their caucus after members split on several key votes.

Later, leaders said most of the 56-member caucus did agree on a "base" budget, and a bill reflecting that spending will be prepared for passage Friday.

After that bill passes, Republicans will get down to the tough choices of divvying up nearly $138 million in new spending for next year.

Among the base budget decisions adopted Tuesday is a 2.5 percent pay hike for state workers. The state would also cover medical insurance increases of 11.8 percent and dental insurance increases of 6 percent.

Members of the Senate GOP caucus agreed during a closed-door meeting Tuesday how to spend nearly $187 million of the $330 million in new, ongoing revenues. Their list also includes 300 prison beds and a boost in education spending to cover enrollment growth.

What the Senate Republicans couldn't agree on, though, was transportation spending. The caucus rejected a proposal to allocate $95 million — even more than their House counterparts — that had been supported by some senators, including Sen. Mike Waddoups, R-West Jordan. A second vote asking members to choose between recommending $85 million and some lesser amount also failed to deliver a consensus, said Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem.

"We'll keep talking," Valentine said. "There's a portion of our caucus that really, really wants to put a significant amount into transportation this year. And there's a portion of our caucus that's willing to do that but wants to see the effect on the overall budget. . . . I may be at $85 (million) when it's all over, but I do want to see all of the budget."

Waddoups said he'd "like to see us go as high as we can" on transportation spending. "That's what we're trying to decide in the Senate: How high can we go."


Contributing: Bob Bernick, Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com