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Lawmakers getting 'reality check' on budget

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28 2013 7:30 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative budget chairman offered what he called a "reality check" Thursday on finalizing the upcoming state budget, noting the actual revenues expected fall far short of what lawmakers hope to spend.

"Those of you who thought you were conservatives, listen to me," House Budget Chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville, told members of the House GOP caucus before going over a list of proposed new expenditures adding up to more than $400 million.

Throw in the requests for surplus funds from this budget year and that total grows to more than $900 million.

But there's only $274 million anticipated in revenue growth in the new budget year that begins July 1. And while there's at least $161 million expected to be left over at the end of the current budget year, that money can only be used for one-time expenses.

Before the session ends March 14, Brown said, some choices will have to be made.

Will lawmakers decide to spend $23.5 million so state employees can get a 1 percent pay increase and maintain their current benefit levels? How about a similar raise for higher education employees, which carries a price tag of $18 million? 

Boosting public education funding to cover a pay increase for teachers would cost $25 million. Just keeping up with new public school enrollment in the new school year is $72.5 million. And there's still a $13.5 million bill to pay from fighting last summer's wildfires.

Those are just some of the items that have been prioritized by appropriations subcommittees meeting over the past week. The Executive Appropriations Committee on Thursday night wrapped up two days of meetings to hear the subcommittee reports.

Brown and Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, are continuing to meet over the budget, and legislative leaders are expected to further pare down the requests next week, with the help of their caucuses. 

House Budget Vice Chairman Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the list is so long this year because of confidence in Utah's economy. 

"There's a lot of pent-up demand, and it all got released this year," Wilson said.

That confidence has been dampened somewhat by the budget stalemate in Washington, D.C., causing a downward revision of last fall's projected $300 million in revenue growth in the new budget year.

Hillyard said he's told senators not to be surprised when their pet projects end up unfunded.

And Utahns should lobby Congress, not the Legislature, about the $40 million in federal funds expected to be cut from the state budget by sequestration, the automatic reductions set to take effect Friday, he said.

"We've got enough pressure for state programs that we can't be diverting money to federal programs," Hillyard said. "They're going to have to call Sen. Hatch and Sen. Lee. They're going to have to call President Obama."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dnewspolitics

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