Lawmakers to begin setting state budget, education leader crying foul

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19 2012 12:37 a.m. MST

The Utah State Capitol, Monday, Jan. 23, 2012.rn

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Updated revenue estimates will be released Tuesday as lawmakers start the arduous task of piecing together a nearly $13 billion state budget.

And one big player in the budget deliberations is crying foul over the process, accusing the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee of pulling a fast one.

House and Senate leaders say they don't know what the numbers will be, but don't anticipate much deviation from the November projection showing a $280 million increase in the 2013 budget year.

"If the revenues figures go up, I'll have a lot more people here asking for money. Then we'll get a play or discussion about tax cuts," said Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

"If on the other hand it goes down, then I'm going back to people who at least expect they're getting last year's base budget and may find out they're not getting that."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart said she hopes the projections don't go down.

"I will be very pleased if the numbers are what we thought they would be. I would more pleased if the numbers are up a little bit. I don't anticipate that," the Provo Republican said.

Either way, Lockhart has said the prospects of a tax cut this year are "slim to none."

Legislators do know they will have an extra $23 million to spend thanks to the national mortgage fraud settlement. That money could be used for variety of things, including help for struggling homeowners, leaders said.

Gov. Gary Herbert proposed a $12.9 billion budget in December. It includes a $111 million boost to public education to cover the cost of more students as well as expand all-day kindergarten and other early intervention programs.

The governor's proposal also contains a 1 percent raise of for state employees. To meet his goal of creating 100,000 jobs by mid-2013, he proposes $20.4 million for economic development initiatives, $11.6 million for job creation incentives and $6 million for tourism marketing.

Legislators will determine whether Herbert get's what he's asking for, and he will again make his wishes known when he see the revenue projections.

"The governor will certainly weigh in. He does not make the budget, we do," Hillyard said. "We will listen to him and work with him. I think he's worked hard at being relevant."

Hillyard said he and House Budget Chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville, will first draft a "no brainer" budget bill that he anticipates will fund growth in public education, Medicaid and possibly a pay increase for state workers.

"We share those goals" with the Senate, Lockhart said.

Public education and the state's share of Medicaid, the federal health plan for needy people, consume the lion's share of the budget, accounting for 49.4 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

"Then we deal with the tough areas," Hillyard said.

The Legislature's seven appropriations subcommittees have been putting together the priority lists since the session started four weeks ago.

State school superintendent Larry Shumway asked legislative leaders in a letter Friday to set aside the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee recommendations and decisions, alleging it violated Utah's open meetings law.

Shumway said the committee passed out two lists containing legislative "intent language" and "statutory language" that weren't on the agenda and that neither the public nor many committee members had access to prior to the meeting.

"The lists included significant matters of public policy and substance, as evidenced by the subcommittee's discussion of nearly two hours that followed," he wrote.

Subcommittee co-chairman Sen. Howard Stephenson called Shumway's letter a "cheap shot" at the legislative process. "He realizes that in the court of public opinion, issues tend to stick whether they have merit or not," the Draper Republican said.

Stephenson, R-Draper, said the subcommittee conducted business like it has every other year without complaint. Furthermore, he said it only makes recommendations to the Executive Appropriations Committee, which vets and screens budget priority lists.

"Nothing that was passed will be law," he said. "There must be one or two things they didn't like that elicited the complaining this year."

The Executive Appropriations Committee's first order of business will be to adopt the revenue estimates Tuesday. In following meetings, it will review subcommittee recommendations.

Legislative leaders have also said they want to dedicate much of the additional revenue to reserve accounts and paying down debt, which leave less to divvy up among state agencies.

Though the House Republican caucus has not taken any formal positions, Lockhart said there are programs she would like to see funded including autism insurance coverage, drug offender treatment and assistance for people with disabilities.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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