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Governor's conservative credentials are questioned

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 11 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s conservative credentials are being questioned these days by some GOP legislators.

In an interview with the Deseret News, Huntsman declined to label himself, but instead said he is a "moderating voice" on all kinds of issues, and all areas of his life.

But some GOP lawmakers want a social conservative in the governor's office, and are incensed with Huntsman's statements this week that he supports "civil unions" in state law.

"It's clear that he is not running again in Utah," said Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, a noted House conservative. "He's moving to a national agenda. And his civil unions sound like gay marriage to me."

Huntsman limited himself to two, four-year terms as governor and won his last re-election in 2008 by the largest majority in state history.

It's not just that under Huntsman's guiding hand state government has grown considerably in recent years. After all, those budgets were approved — along with some big tax cuts — by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Rather, it is Huntsman's embrace of some so-called "progressive" social and economic issues that has some lawmakers questioning him — liquor and ethics reform, climate change, even spending one-time money to avoid employee layoffs and program cuts.

While liking Huntsman personally, some GOP lawmakers are getting increasingly tired of his politics.

In Tuesday's House GOP caucus, Huntsman was, yet again, attacked for joining, along with that other highly-suspect "Republican" Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, the Western Climate Initiative.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, has a House resolution, which doesn't go to the governor for signature or veto, "that just says get us out of this thing. Now."

Despite the talk, the resolution is nonbinding, and Huntsman also can't be forced to get out of the climate initiative.

There's tension between the governor and GOP lawmakers over the budget, too. With the state facing a $1 billion shortfall, legislative leaders are demanding a 15 percent reduction in the budget year that begins July 1. Huntsman says they only need to cut half that much.

Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, said Tuesday the governor's office is encouraging his department heads not to help legislative committees make the bigger cuts.

"Now is not the time to play games," Killpack said, calling any stonewalling "extremely disappointing."

Lawmakers have already rejected a call from Huntsman to slow down the budget process until the federal stimulus package is passed.

Killpack also raised the issue of private school vouchers, which the governor supported. Huntsman later disappointed conservatives by not actively defending during what was a successful referendum election to repeal vouchers.

This certainly would not be the first time that conservative lawmakers looked askance at their Republican governor. Both former Govs. Norm Bangerter and Mike Leavitt, at times in their years in the governor's office, have been so questioned.

But when all of his combined stances are considered, especially on social issues, some fellow Republicans see not a conservative in the governor's chair, but a moderate, if not a progressive.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com

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