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House, Senate leaders hashing out state budget

Published: Thursday, March 1 2012 4:29 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — House and Senate leaders say they're close to piecing together the state budget.

Republican caucuses in both bodies approved a chunk of the $12.9 million spending plan Thursday, including slightly more than Gov. Gary Herbert recommended for public education. The GOP controls both the House and Senate.

But leaders met late Thursday to negotiate a dozen or so items on which they disagree. Those include state building maintenance, the Rainy Day fund, county jail contracting and reimbursement, autism insurance coverage and the Department of People with Disabilities waiting list for services.

"We have different priorities in some cases," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. "Our overspending is their underspending and vice versa."

Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said the group is attempting to sort through many legitimate needs and wants yet balance the books.

"We've done a pretty good job of tempering our appetites so government isn't going to grow up too much," he said.

Lawmakers said they are not considering tax increases or additional bonding.

The Executive Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet Friday to finalize the budget.

Under the portion of the plan approved Thursday, the weighted pupil unit — the amount the state spends per public school student — would increase from $2,577 to $2,816.

"This is a better position than what the governor was proposing," said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden.

The additional money could fund a slight wage increase for teachers, but legislators were quick to say that decision rests with school districts. "The Legislature does not set teacher salaries. The districts do," Lockhart said.

State employees also are in line to receive an increase. But Lockhart said the money would only cover the state contribution to their retirement fund, which is still suffering from the recession. Without the extra money, state workers would have seen a net loss in pay, leaders said.

Negotiations over the budget are ongoing, Senate President Michael Waddoups said Thursday afternoon.

Starting at 7 a.m. Thursday, legislative leaders met to go through the priority lists submitted by each appropriations subcommittee to attempt to fund the most pressing items on their lists.

"We're trying to figure out how far to go down on each of them," the Taylorsville Republican said. "We went down about a third on most lists, well maybe one-fourth of the way down many lists."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, marjorie@desnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

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