SALT LAKE CITY — The battle to override a bill devoting nearly 30 percent of future sales tax revenue exclusively for transportation projects brought out public opposition Wednesday, including from the state's commissioner of higher education.
A small group including advocates for education, social services and business rallied support for letting Gov. Gary Herbert's veto of SB229 stand, urging the public to contact their legislators and urge them to vote against the override.
"I think the governor has a good plan," said Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg. "I don't think there's a need to override the veto."
Beginning in 2013, the bill would set aside the growth in sales-tax revenue exclusively for road maintenance and construction projects. That amounts to as much as $60 million a year, in addition to the $295 million already directed from sales-tax revenue every year for highways.
"By taking 30 percent and earmarking it toward one interest, it can potentially hurt all the other parties that are funded out of the general fund," said Tom Love, United Way of Salt Lake board chairman. The United Way supports social service agencies, education interests, corrections as well as transportation, Love said.
Love joins the rest of the group who don't support "handcuffing" the state's budget toward any one source.
When it comes to higher education, Sederburg has deep concerns, since it limits the state's colleges and universities from restoring money that has been cut during the recent recession.
Some schools like Dixie State College have had their funding cut so they get about half the money per student than they received four years ago, Sederburg said. "And so, it just ties the hands of the Legislature to meet some of those needs."
"It's very strange to me for the Legislature to say 'we love roads above the human capital needs of the state,'" Sederburg added.
But lawmakers say SB229 is a way to manage the state's future money more responsibly, given the volatility of sales-tax collections. Lengthy negotiations between Legislative leaders and the governor failed to come up with an acceptable alternative to the bill.
"I still feel that we need the bill," said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden. "Can we do some things to tweak it? Obviously, we've been working with the governor to do that. And if need be, we can do that in the future."
Dee has worked with the bill's original sponsor, Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton.
Adams sees the bill as both funding a critical need — transportation — but also as a fiscal management tool. It limits government growth in other areas, Adams said. And historically, transportation funds have acted as a second rainy day fund, which the state can tap into in future hard times.
"We're not taking the money away," Adams said. "We're simply deferring it to a year when we need it, as we've done in the past."
But a question remains about whether both the House and Senate have the two-thirds majorities needed to pass a veto override.
As of Wednesday, the number of votes in the Senate remained in question, since two key Republican members will be out of town Friday when the override session is scheduled.
Although some Senate Democrats have indicated support for the override, Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero said not every Senate Democrat has made a final decision. "I think this conversation over the next few days is going to be critical toward an ultimate decision," Romero said.
Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, said he is leaning towards voting to override the veto. "It's not the best public policy but it starts a dialog about what to do," McAdams said, including adjusting the gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1998.
But both Dee and Adams say the votes are there for an override, although neither would provide a definite count from either body.
"We wouldn't be calling the override session if we didn't have the votes," Dee said.
In the meantime, critics of SB229 continue to take potshots at the override. Clark Ivory, Ivory Homes CEO, called the bill a "'bad business move" at the rally.
"We are and have been considered the best managed state," Ivory said. "But we better stay the best managed state. And when we do stuff like this, it makes me wonder."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche