Legislative leaders finalizing Utah budget

By Josh Loftin

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 3 2012 12:10 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah legislative leaders have finalized a $13 billion budget proposal that will go to lawmakers Monday without raising taxes or cutting funding for state agencies.

For the most part, the primary goals for legislators of boosting education funding, giving raises to public employees and covering the growth in Medicaid have been accomplished, House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said.

Although the state had a $400 million surplus, the vast majority of that was essentially allocated at the beginning of the session because of those priorities. Leaders also committed to reducing the state's debt load and provide ongoing funding for some programs that currently have to make new requests every year.

Public education has received $40 million to cover the costs of an expected 12,000 new students, and teachers will receive a raise of slightly more than 1 percent.

Lockhart said that there were a lot more requests this year than there was money, which is typical. But overall, she was pleased with the final budget agreement.

"Everyone is going to be disappointed for one reason or another," Lockhart said. "But people can be proud of what we did this year."

There are still about a dozen issues left to be resolved between House and Senate leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert. But those are all requests that are relatively small, such as a $1.8 million request for state-run liquor stores.

Without that money, the state may have to revisit the unpopular possibility of closing some stores, said Herbert's spokeswoman Ally Isom. Last year, significant public outcry forced the state liquor agency to back away from a plan to shut down about a dozen stores.

Isom said there is likely enough money to keep all of the state liquor stores open until next year, but the money is needed to provide long-term stability.

Overall, however, she said that Herbert is "pleased to see that the priority has been on education."

Democratic leaders also supported the final budget proposal, although they said there were still some areas of concern.

"There are some critical needs in our community, but this budget has come a long way," Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said.

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Josh Loftin can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/joshloftin.

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