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Preliminary budget passes with 7% cuts

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 2 2011 4:12 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers passed a series of bills Wednesday, chopping 7 percent from the upcoming state budget — cuts that may only be temporary.

Before the 2011 legislative session ends in early March, however, the state will have new revenue estimates that may mean more money is available to restore at least some of the reductions.

"When Santa Claus does come — if he comes — at the end of the session and has something in his bag, then we need to prioritize these 7 percent cuts," House Budget Chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville, told the House.

The list of cuts include everything from eliminating the state Office of Ethnic Affairs, school nurses and adult education to cutting programs for the disabled and shutting down a portion of the prison, forcing the early release of some inmates.

Democrats, in the minority in both the House and the Senate, opposed the cuts.

Senate Minority Whip Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, said the reductions to public education — a list that now adds up to more than an 11 percent — were unnecessary.

"I believe there is smoke and mirrors going on here," Morgan said.

House Minority Caucus Manager Christine Watkins, D-Price, said programs in other areas of the budget dealing with state parks, food safety and a museum in Blanding were cut "to the bare bones."

Republican leaders, however, said the cuts are needed in case revenues fall short. "This is the worst-case scenario," Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, said. "I would certainly hate to end up with all these cuts when all is said and done."

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said critics are looking at the bills the wrong way.

"Some are raising this as a cut," Waddoups said. "We haven't cut anything yet. We haven't. We've funded 93 percent."

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert proposed an $11.9 billion budget in December that largely relied on continued economic growth rather than cuts to solve the "structural imbalance" left now that federal stimulus funds and other one-time sources of revenue are gone.

The governor's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said he hasn't changed his position despite Wednesday's vote.

"Gov. Herbert remains firm — his recommended budget is a better approach to today's needs and state economy," Isom said. "The Legislature is weeks away from passing a final budget, and much could change. We will continue to work with legislators to address priorities."

The so-called base budget, approved largely without debate through seven separate bills by the House and Senate, allows lawmakers to ensure there will be a spending plan in place when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

The practice started after former Gov. Olene Walker threatened to veto the state budget when lawmakers balked at including a reading program she supported.

"If the world falls apart, we'll have government next year," Brown said, advising House members their work on the budget, though, is far from done.

Waddoups said, without a base budget in place, "it can almost turn into a food fight if we wait until the last two weeks."

The budget subcommittees will have to decide what to add back in as well as consider requests for new programs. The budget won't be finalized until after the revenue estimates are updated in late February.

"Hopefully, come February, we'll have additional revenue," Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said. "I don't think it will be a lot."

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

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