Lawmakers getting closer on budget

Published: Monday, March 7 2011 9:11 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Although immigration and other key issues have dominated the 2011 Legislature, lawmakers still need to approve a budget before the session ends Thursday.

On Monday, the Executive Appropriations Committee passed without debate a big chunk of what is expected to be about a $12 billion spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1.

Both the House and the Senate GOP majority caucuses had already agreed to restore all but 1 percent of the 7 percent cuts made earlier this session in the preliminary base budget.

House Budget Chairman Mel Brown said those cuts ended up giving lawmakers the flexibility they needed to put together a final budget that not only includes no reductions in public education spending, but adds another $200,000 or so and funds enrollment growth.

The cuts were not restored across the board. Some areas of the budget, especially higher education, would see spending sliced nearly 2 percent from current levels.

There are no tax increases in the budget, and proposals that surfaced this session to restore the sales tax on food reportedly were not brought up in the closed Republican caucuses held Monday on budget issues.

Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said the difference between the Legislature's budget and governor's recommendations will be "very, very minor."

"Most of it has just come in what we've done in budget prioritization, some would say cut," Hillyard said. "But what we've done is become more streamlined."

Gov. Gary Herbert, however, has complained about the Legislature's budget process, calling it convoluted and confusing.

His proposed budget contained no cuts, relying largely on continued economic growth to solve Republican lawmakers' biggest money concern, the so-called structural imbalance.

The imbalance is a $313 million hole left in the upcoming budget as a result of federal stimulus funds and other new one-time sources of revenue no longer available.

GOP lawmakers had said the 7 percent cuts were needed to wipe out the imbalance. Now, they're ready to accept reducing the imbalance down to about $42.5 million.

There are several budget issues yet to be decided, including whether to pay for a $6.9 million unit at the state prison or come up with $4.9 million to house inmates in local jails.

Also in limbo is whether to fund some $80 million in new buildings. Options include reviving the governor's idea of switching self-employed Utahns from annual to quarterly income tax payments to accelerate revenues.

"There are a lot of ornaments on the tree people want," Brown said. Some of those items will be wrapped up into a separate funding bill still being put together.

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com

Legislature won't raise tax on gasoline this session

SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns are paying more at the pump, but the Legislature won't be contributing to the rising cost.

The Senate voted down Monday a proposal to raise the gas tax 5 cents per gallon. SB239 also called for an automatic ¾-cent increase every two years. The current tax is 24.5 cents a gallon.

"I think the timing is really off. We're trying to recover economically," said Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan. "If I got a pair of worn-out pair of Levis, I don't go out and buy another pair just 'cause I need 'em."

The increase would have raised an estimated $60 million for road repairs.

Bill sponsor Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, the state will pay more later if it doesn't do something now. "When it's necessary to repair the roof, we repair the roof," he said.

— Dennis Romboy

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