Utah legislative leaders to get a jump on budget

Pre-session briefings to explore shortfalls, cuts

By Lisa Riley Roche and Bob Bernick Jr.

Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Jan. 11 2009 1:05 a.m. MST

Utah GOP legislative leaders expect a barrage of bad news — even a few threats to close down whole state programs — when the 2009 Legislature discusses tough budget realities on Monday.

"We will hear the worst possible scenarios" from state agency bosses who've been asked to detail how they would cut upwards of 15 percent of their budgets, one leader told the Deseret News last week.

While the 2009 Legislature doesn't begin its official general session until Jan. 26, under their current authority leaders can call interim budget committees into public hearings — and each budget committee will meet all day Monday in the first round of pre-session briefings, an attempt to bring members up to speed on the coming financial challenges in both the current and the new fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Utah state government faces hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue shortfalls over the two fiscal years, although Utah is in better financial shape than many other states that face billions of dollars in tax shortfalls.

And GOP legislative leaders — basically junking Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s budget recommendations for this year and next — vow they will not plug ongoing budget expenses with one-time or borrowed money and are recommending cuts of up to 15 percent from the budget adopted by the 2008 Legislature.

Huntsman told the newspaper his budget recommendations were carefully prepared to avoid making the kinds of deep cuts GOP lawmakers are now talking about.

"That's exactly why we proposed the budget we did," Huntsman said. "It was thoughtfully and tactfully constructed, and it was done with people in mind."

The governor proposed a $10.6 billion budget for next fiscal year, with cuts limited to 7 percent. Human Services and education would see less of a reduction, only around 4 percent.

The difference between his budget and what the Legislature is looking at is bonding for some state construction projects. Huntsman would bond to ensure there's cash to cover some of the shortfall.

"That is probably the one issue that divides us at this point," he said. Conservative lawmakers do not like borrowing money even in a good tax revenue year, and many are concerned about increasing the state's debt in a time of financial uncertainty.

But the governor said the state does need to rely on bonding, as well as dip into the Rainy Day Fund for some one-time cash, to make sure human services, public education and higher education don't suffer unnecessarily.

"We've invested too heavily in getting where we are, in catching up from a lot of lean years where I think backpedaling would be unproductive," Huntsman said. He said there's no need for across-the-board cuts some conservative legislators are talking about when the state has that flexibility.

"My desire is to sort of hold our own through this difficult time. Sure, everyone will have to give up something. It's just a question of how much and how people are impacted."


E-mail: lisa@desnews.com; bbjr@desnews.com

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