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Utah legislative leaders slash 7 percent from state budget

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 26 2011 12:21 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — It didn't take the Executive Appropriations Committee long Tuesday to slash 7 percent from the upcoming state budget.

The only significant debate was over a failed attempt by the minority Democrats to keep the budget set to take effect July 1 at the current levels.

The total amount of cuts approved in a split vote along party lines is $329 million. Most of the budget subcommittees over each area are still deciding exactly where to cut.

Earlier in the day, several members of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee expressed uneasiness at making budget decisions with what they believe is insufficiently detailed information.

"This committee allocates billions of dollars, but as far as I'm concerned, we do it in the dark," said committee co-Chairman Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan.

He asked the State Office of Education to come back with more detail explaining how individual schools would be spending their share of the nearly $3 billion public education budget.

Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, tried to get the Executive Appropriations Committee to avoid budget cuts by tapping into some $216 million in revenue growth projected for next year.

Romero even cited GOP Gov. Gary Herbert's budget, which largely relies on ongoing economic growth to solve the so-called $313 million structural imbalance resulting from the end of federal stimulus funds and other one-time sources of revenue.

But the Republicans on the committee weren't interested.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said the public is calling for more budget cuts. Without chopping some areas of the budget, Waddoups said, there won't be enough money to handle other state needs including growth in education.

Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, noted this is not the final budget. That won't come until after new revenue estimates are released in late February.

"We still have a lot of work to do," Niderhauser said, calling it "sound principle that we have our financial house in order. … Some programs need to go away."

The audience for the late afternoon hearing include a number of department heads and advocates worried about losing funds.

Each of the budget subcommittee recommendations will be voted on separately next week for the first time instead of as part of a single base budget bill.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the intent is to empower the subcommittees. Others, however, see the effort as a way to ensure all areas of the budget are equally hard-hit.

Waddoups said earlier in the day is optimistic there could be as much as $50 million in new revenues available, but was hesitant go out on a limb this early in the process. "I don't like to make predictions because sometimes they're wrong," he said.

Romero said the budget process should not "start and end with cuts." He said bonding, reducing some tax incentives and exemptions, even a tax increase should be considered, too. He said if a tax hike targeted reduction in public schools' class size, the community would go for it.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, said there are people who are going to impacted and hurt due to budget cuts. But, the Logan Republican advised, "don't panic until we get to the last day."

Contributing: Molly Farmer

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com; romboy@desnews.com

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