SALT LAKE CITY — House Republicans adopted priorities Tuesday for the 2012 legislative session, including opposition to any tax increases.
"No tax increases this session," declared House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, during a break in the House GOP's all-day caucus meeting. "We're just drawing a line in the sand."
The unanimous position comes at a time when lawmakers expect to have more money available for the first time in several years — a $128 million surplus and $280 million in projected revenue growth.
With those additional funds comes more pressure to spend, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said. "There are so many groups and people that profess their needs. There's not that much money," she said.
A few members of the majority party even talked about cutting taxes, Lockhart said, but the caucus didn't go that far.
"I think they were serious mentioning it," she said. "I would never say anything is completely off the table. But our position today at this point is no tax increase."
No one is talking about tax increases or decreases during the 45-day session set to start in late January. But, Lockhart said, that could change depending on the final budget projections due in late February.
"That could go up or down," she said. "Who knows?"
The caucus position also calls for the state to pay down some of its bonding debt to protect Utah's AAA bond rating.
Just how much money that will take remains to be seen, Lockhart said. Legislative analysts have estimated it would cost $85 million to reduce the debt to acceptable levels, but the speaker said that number is "a little bit fluid."
Also, the caucus wants to eliminate the so-called $52 million "structural imbalance" in the budget, created by using one-time moneys to cover ongoing costs during lean budget years.
Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed $12.9 billion budget, released last week, did not call for tax increases or paying down debt — but it would wipe out the structural deficit.
The GOP governor and House members also agreed on the other priority set by the caucus, funding an anticipated 12,500 boost in the number of public school students in Utah classrooms next year.
Dee said the GOP majority wanted "to start a new era of cooperation and appreciation with our partners in education" rather than using the need to fund enrollment growth as a bargaining chip.
The caucus did not, however, take a position on the governor's recommendation that the formula used to fund public schools be increased 1 percent to cover the cost of a pay increase for teachers.
"There's still some tough decisions to make," Lockhart said. She called the governor's budget "a good starting place" but suggested the state needs to be in a better position to handle a natural or economic disaster.
The governor and most lawmakers are up for re-election next year. So far, Herbert is being challenged by two fellow Republicans, Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, and former congressional candidate Morgan Philpot.
The Senate Republican majority held the first of two pre-session caucuses last week. They focused on the budget and education but took no formal positions on those issues. The Senate GOP will meet again on Jan. 17.
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