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New Utah revenue numbers 'disappointing'

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 21 2012 8:53 p.m. MST

The Utah State Capitol on the opening day of the Utah State Legislature Monday, Jan. 23, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — New projections released Tuesday giving lawmakers another $14 million to spend this session fell short of some expectations.

"Disappointing," was how Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, summed up the additional $9 million in ongoing revenues and $5 million in one-time monies available to the 2012 Legislature.

"It's so little you can't see it," Jenkins said. "We had hoped for a little bit extra in the hopper so we had some dough to work with."

The state was already expecting $280 million in revenue growth in the new budget year that begins July 1, and a $128 million surplus in the current budget year, based on estimates made last fall.

While no one is complaining about having even more cash, there is concern it isn't enough to cover some items lawmakers hoped to fund, a shortfall Jenkins said adds up to some $50 million.

"That's a big number," Jenkins said. "This is an issue. I'm not really sure what we're going to do."

Caught in the shortfall is a 1 percent pay raise for higher education employees, Jenkins said, but not similar salary hikes for state workers and public school teachers recommended in Gov. Gary Herbert's nearly $13 billion budget.

Even so, lobbyists for government employees sounded worried.

"I'm a little nervous that they're going to have less enthusiasm," said Kory Holdaway, government relations director for the Utah Education Association.

Holdaway said the association is focused on securing the money needed to cover enrollment growth in public schools as well as a pay increase for teachers and other employees.

"We're still hopeful the Legislature will continue to prioritize education as they said they planned to, recognizing that there may not be as much funding available," he said.

Dave Buhler, associate commissioner for the Utah System of Higher Education, tried to sound upbeat.

The new revenue numbers are "not like the biggest we've ever seen, but they are positive," Buhler said. Higher education saw budget cuts that added up to 14 percent over the past two years.

"We've taken some hits, but the state's been through some pretty tough times. We understand that," he said, adding he hopes that "gives us some priority."

During an Executive Appropriations Committee meeting Tuesday night, Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said the higher education budget subcommittee put giving a pay increase at the the top of their list.

"We all recognize the value they've been bringing and the extra burden they've been asked to bear," Romero said.

The Executive Appropriations Committee accepted the new revenue numbers without debate and is expected to make recommendations on budget priorities on Wednesday.

The governor, who is emphasizing the strength of the state's economy in his reelection campaign, said in a statement that the new numbers simply show the earlier forecast was sound.

"Utah's economy is still growing, and while we clearly still have work to do and jobs to grow, our forecasts are holding and this state continues to lead the nation out of the Great Recession," Herbert said.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, was also positive about the new numbers.

"It's good news they're not less," Lockhart said. "That means we're beginning to see growth in the economy, steady but slow. So I think people should feel confident about that."

She said she was not concerned that the numbers suggest income tax revenues will fall short of last fall's projections, while sales tax collections are expected to be higher.

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