After learning he may have misinterpreted some figures, tax-cut advocate Merrill Cook isn't sure whether Gov. Norm Bangerter is calling for the biggest budget increase in state history.
But whether his reading of the budget is right or not, Cook said he still thinks the governor's proposed $3.5 billion spending plan is too high and has suggested cutting it by $108 million.That's just enough money to cover the cost to state and local governments of taking the sales tax off food, which Cook supported, Bangerter opposed and voters rejected.
Not surprisingly, the governor's office was not interested in Cook's plan. "Mr. Cook doesn't understand the budget process, and these kind of allegations reveal it," said Bud Scruggs, the governor's chief of staff.
"We had to make painful cuts and painful reallocations," Scruggs said. "To say the state is awash in money is an affront to the people who are going to be hurt by a budget that's the best we can do."
The latest battle between Cook, head of the fledgling Independent Party, and the governor began when Cook held a press conference Monday to blast Bangerter's budget.
In a detailed press release, Cook said the governor added expenditures that the Legislature hasn't agreed to yet to the current budget so the amount of increase he's recommending for the next looks smaller.
Sound confusing? It did to state budget analysts who said Cook was mixed up. The expenditures in question - known as supplemental budget requests - were not included in the $3.5 billion proposal.
What Cook had found was a $135 million difference between the amount of money the Legislature authorized spending during the current fiscal year ending next June 30 and what was actually being spent.
That was no mystery to the budget analysts, who flipped open the pages of the state budget to the section on revenue sources and pointed to increases in several types of federal funding.
Unexpected increases in sales taxes and other revenue sources collected by the state can't be spent without permission from the Legislature. That's where money for supplemental budget requests comes from, known as surplus.
Unexpected increases in federal funds, however, can be spent with just the approval of administrative officials. So those increases can be added to the budget without action by the Legislature and without being labeled surplus.
Although Cook was surprised to hear late Monday he may not be right about where the money came from, he wasn't ready to retract his criticisms of the governor's budget.
In fact, he just launched into another round of complaints about the difficulty the initiative supporters had getting information about the size of the state's budget surplus.
"If that's all federal money that's fine and dandy, but it just makes me more convinced than ever they mislead us," Cook said. "We were accused of devastating and gutting those departments that are getting more money."