SALT LAKE CITY — Last week may have been dominated by the Thanksgiving holiday for most Utahns, but it was all about budget deliberations for Gov. Gary Herbert.
Sure, he took time off for the big feast, but there were at least three separate meetings on his schedule devoted to deciding the state's spending plan.
Herbert squeezed the extra meetings into his shortened work week because he's planning on releasing his proposed budget early this year, on Dec. 10.
The good news for the governor is that the recession's impact on state revenues appears to have bottomed out, and there may be some increase in tax collections.
But the recently updated revenue estimates for the current year's budget anticipate only about an additional $6 million, an amount that's seen as statistically insignificant in a budget for some $11.6 billion.
And the growth in the upcoming budget year that begins July 1, 2011, isn't likely to be much better, adding up to only about half the average revenue increase of 8 percent.
The slow growth means it will take the state some time to catch up after several years of budget cuts and using one-time sources of money, including federal stimulus funds, to pay for ongoing costs.
Lawmakers reluctantly accepted an additional $101 million in federal stimulus funds for schools in a recent special session, but half of that money will be used to cover a shortfall in the budget year that ended June 30.
Using federal stimulus funds and other one-time sources of revenues have already left a $313 million gap in the current budget, a structural imbalance that needs to be closed.
Added to the list of budget concerns is the need to fund growth in public and higher education, something lawmakers couldn't find a way to do last session even as they attempted to keep from cutting school budgets.
"We've got a couple of years before the budget is normalized," state budget director John Nixon said. "There are some real needs out there."
The governor's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, said it's too soon to talk about exactly what's going be in the budget.
"There isn't much more to say at this point," Welling said. "Gov. Herbert's priorities are to public education, reducing the structural imbalance and protecting critical services in areas such as public safety and human services."
Speaker-elect Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she's not expecting any surprises in the governor's budget.
"I don't think we'll have the kind of growth we need to be able to have extra. We still have significant one-time money in ongoing programs so our priority is going to be to lessen that," Lockhart said. She said Herbert's spending plan "will probably give us some good insight into the agencies and their needs."
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said it will be good to start the 2011 Legislature in January out of the red.
"Last (session) we were down fairly significantly. We did a lot of cutting and chopping," Waddoups said. "This is a significant change in the trend."
Still, the Senate leader said he's not ready yet to say the state will be able to help schools pay for new students in the upcoming budget — especially with the gap in one-time revenues that needs to be filled.
More money for schools is just not realistic based on the current revenue forecast, Waddoups said. "I'm hoping it is by March," he said, when lawmakers will receive their final revenue estimates before voting on the upcoming budget.
Waddoups said he expects Herbert to offer an optimistic prediction for revenue growth, just as he did in his first budget a year ago. Those numbers had to be adjusted down by lawmakers, but Waddoups said that may not be the case this year.
What he doesn't expect to see is any tax or fee increases in the governor's budget, even though some lawmakers continue to talk quietly about restoring the sales tax on food or boosting the gasoline tax.
"I think based on the results of elections around the country and in Utah, it'd be really hard," Waddoups said.
Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, one of the conservative leaders in the House, agreed.
"We as a government need to live within our means," Wimmer said, noting he has consistently opposed accepting federal stimulus funds.
Utahns will want lawmakers to address the structural imbalance first to keep the state from sinking into debt, he said.
"There is a possibility we won't have to cut as deeply as we did last year," Wimmer said. "But it would be negligent of us as lawmakers not to plan for the worst and hope for the best."
The Legislature's Democratic minority, which saw its numbers shrink even more on Election Day, worries the GOP will continue pushing through costly message bills advancing their fight against the federal government.
"I hope we don't see any bills which come with a known litigation cost in promoting quote-unquote states rights," Senate Minority Leader-elect Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said.1 comment on this story
Romero also wants to avoid further budget cuts next session, possibly by bonding more to pay for infrastructure needs. Republicans, however, tend to dislike bonding almost as much as tax increases.
"I don't think we can compromise education or our tremendous needs in health and human services any more," Romero said. "I would be similarly opposed to asking our working families to give up more in services."