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Utah Legislature adjourns after closing budget gap, passing ethics reforms

Legislators fill budget gap, hike tobacco tax

Published: Friday, March 12 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

A tour group moves through the Capitol rotunda during the last day of the 2010 Legislature Thursday.

T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Considering what they faced 45 days ago when the 2010 Legislature began, most legislators, lobbyists and special interest advocates were smiling Thursday night after the 104 part-time lawmakers adjourned.

"This was a positive experience and the citizens were well served," said Gov. Gary Herbert, who has seen a number of legislatures over the years, but this was his first, as he put it, "in the No. 1 chair."

The main achievement: Closing a $700 million budget gap while only spending about half the state's Rainy Day Fund, leaving around $210 million, and raising the tobacco tax by $1 a pack starting May 1.

While some state agencies will be taking more than a 20 percent cut over two years, and there was plenty of pain passed around, Herbert and legislators are pleased that public and higher education got the lion's share of tax dollars — and the lowest budget reductions.

Public schools will see only a $10 million decrease in funding (out of a budget of more than $1 billion).

"While the public may not see or realize this, we took $293 million that was one-time money funding public education and replaced it with $293 million in ongoing tax revenue," said House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara.

That is huge, the speaker said, because it means the 2011 Legislature will not have to raid one-time cash surplus accounts again to make public schools whole, or face another massive budget cut for teachers and students.

Utah colleges and universities will see about a 5 percent cut.

Still, because 11,000 new students in grades K-12 won't be funded next fall, in reality public schools will see about 5 percent less money than they normally would have received.

And the individual state universities will likely increase tuition between 10 percent and 15 percent.

Lawmakers also dealt with a $6.5 billion drop in the state's retirement fund, keeping all current employees' pensions intact, but reducing pensions and setting up optional 401ks for future state employees, teachers and college workers.

Lawmakers passed a 12-bill ethics reform package, seen by many as the greatest strides in this area since statehood.

They adopted a new law clarifying where fishermen and hikers can go on streams running through private lands, although they will study it through 2010 before it takes effect.

In a pre-election Legislature that sees the governor and all 75 House members and half of the 29-member Senate up for re-election this year, it was also a bipartisan session.

"I can't remember a time where (Democrats) were treated as fairly by Republican leaders, and we appreciated that," said House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake.

Democrats may have wanted to spend a bit more on public and higher education and human services.

Conservative GOP lawmakers may have opposed the cigarette tax hike and wanted even deeper program cuts.

But as Herbert put it, "common sense is a hard thing to get around." And compromises were ultimately made. Herbert accepted the tobacco tax hike, when he didn't want any tax increase.

Conservatives agreed to hundreds of millions in general obligation and revenue bonds — which they originally opposed — and delaying around $115 million of road work to pay for construction of a number of college buildings.

Yes, it was a session of "message bills" — many of them bashing the federal government for burying Americans in debt, mandating health care and controlling Utahns' lives.

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