Utah Gov. Gary Herbert fires back at lawmakers who want override

Published: Thursday, April 28 2011 1:10 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert fired back Thursday at lawmakers who want to override his veto of a bill earmarking a share of sales taxes for road construction, calling it "bad policy."

He also said during his monthly news conference on KUED Ch. 7 that many legislators are having second thoughts about having made budget cuts that slated nine profitable state liquor stores for closure.

But the GOP governor downplayed his conflicts with the Republican-controlled Legislature, even though he faces re-election next year and has been called politically weak by a tea party organizer.

"That's part of the process," he said. "That's what the public wants. They want me to play my role. They want the Legislature to play their role. We're not rubber stamps for each other."

Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and an adviser to the governor, said the override session could help rather than hurt him with voters.

"It could be a great moment for Herbert to have taken a stand, a principled stand, in spite of the fact he was going to lose to the Legislature," Jowers said. "For Utah, it is high stakes, because it's relatively unseen."

Calling a rare override session and not having the votes to overturn the governor's veto would "could have huge repercussions" for lawmakers, Jowers said. "It'll probably impact some races and it will be great, obviously, for Gov. Herbert."

Legislative leaders announced this week they were holding a veto override session on May 6 on SB229, a bill passed by the 2011 Legislature that would set aside 30 percent of future sales tax revenues for road construction.

The state already spends about 17 percent of sales-tax revenues on transportation projects. The intent of the bill is to boost that total over time so that one-fourth of the sales taxes collected go to roads.

The governor said lawmakers were "just taking numbers out of the sky" without considering the impact on funding for other state needs, especially public and higher education.

"I just simply believe it's bad policy to earmark particularly this large a portion of our general fund budget to transportation," he said. "Earmarking one out of every four dollars potentially jeopardizes risking other priorities."

Herbert also dismissed talk by his fellow Republicans that without the set-aside, the gas tax would have to be hiked. A bill that would have raised the gas tax was defeated last session, but had it passed, the governor said he would have vetoed it, too.

"Our fragile economy right now, I think, would not warrant a gas tax increase," the governor said, noting his opposition to any tax increases. "It's not about a gas tax. I believe that's a red herring."

The call for an override session came after negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders failed to identify an acceptable alternative to the set-aside that could have been approved in a special session.

Herbert said he wasn't trying to avoid an override vote because that would be politically embarrassing. "No, not at all," he said. "What I want to have is good policy. If we can negotiate and get good policy, that's a good way to do it."

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said helping a fellow Republican was "certainly one of the reasons" he attempted to come up with a compromise.

But Waddoups said Herbert can use the override "as a plus. It'll show that we have disagreements and he's his own man."

The Senate leader wasn't sure, though, how the vote will go.

"You're never confident of things like that until you take the vote," he said, acknowledging that if the session doesn't produce an override, lawmakers will be accused of wasting the $30,000 the session will cost.

Waddoups did praise the governor for coming up with a proposal to shift funds within the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to keep the nine liquor stores through next February.

"He can't do it if we tell him not to, but we didn't tell him not to," Waddoups said. "Let's give him credit. We're on the same team."

Herbert said he hopes the 2012 Legislature, which will be in session when the money runs out, will come up with a way to continue to fund the stores, which generate revenue for the state.

"I'm always the optimist," the governor said. "As I talked with many legislators, I think they didn't realize or think that when they cut the $2.2 million out of the DABC budget that would result in the closure of nine liquor stores that are profitable."

The governor was less enthusiastic about a proposal to privatize liquor sales, although he said the time was probably right to talk about the possibility.

"I think at the end of the day, for Utah, it's a public safety issue," Herbert told reporters after the taping. "We've had a good history, I think, of how we distribute alcohol."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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