Nolan Karras is a cautious man. In high school, he wouldn't ask out "a pretty girl" without first having a friend inquire of the young woman if she would accept a date with Karras.

"I never asked out anyone who said no. By the time I was ready, I knew she'd say yes," he recalls with a smile.The new speaker of the Utah House used the same thorough method four years ago when he made his first run at the top job in the 75-member House.

"I traveled the state talking to (Republican) members. I had my votes lined up. But I was naive. I believed that a commitment from a person was just that, a commitment. I lost that race for speaker to Bob Garff. And I lost it in the 15 minutes before the caucus vote," when Garff promised certain committee assignments to Republicans who'd defect to his camp.

"I learned a valuable lesson. And I seasoned more as executive appropriations co-chairman and majority leader," the two posts that Karras held in Republican leadership after losing that close speaker's race against Garff.

This year Karras ran again for speaker, and this time he won. Now, Karras says he's ready to lead the House. And ready to fight for changes in state government.

While some in the House and Senate see a dull two or four years ahead, with the tax revolt killing any chance of tax increases while paying for the ever-growing numbers of school-age children eats up any natural growth in taxes, Karras sees an opportunity to reform state government.

"We can't do business as usual. We've squeezed the current system about dry. We've done a good job of that. So to get more savings we have to change the system. That's what I want to do," the 44-year-old Republican from Roy said.

Karras wants to change the whole mind-set of legislators. He'll start first with the legislative staff, who must learn to analyze departmental budgets with an eye toward productivity.

"My motto in business is, `If you can't measure it, you can't manage it,' " said Karras, who is a certified public accountant/investment counselor.

"Government does a terrible job, just a terrible job, in measuring its productivity. We have to change that, first with our staff, then with the legislators themselves. We have to ask the right questions, and then we have to get the real answers."

That, Karras believes, hasn't been happening.

"It doesn't take long to learn that we (legislators) spend most of our time on the budget arguing about the difference between what the governor recommends and what our fiscal analyst recommends. In a multibillion-dollar departmental budget, that may be several hundred thousand dollars we argue over. What about the rest of the millions? Are they being spent well or not? We don't know."

Government managers will naturally protect themselves and their departments. So it is up to the Legislature and its staff to ferret out waste, Karras believes.

This is Karras' classic example: The first year he served - 1981 - he sat on the Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. The department had a single backhoe, a machine that digs holes. "I asked how much the backhoe was used. Every contractor knows his equipment use, so he can decide if he'll buy the machine or lease it. Natural Resources couldn't tell me.

"Our people went out and checked. The backhoe was used less than 100 hours a year. A private contractor would buy one if he used it 1,000 hours a year, or lease it as needed if it was less. I complained. The next year the department bought two more backhoes. They told me I was right that the backhoe wasn't used enough, but it was because they had only one for the whole state. With three, spread out geographically, they would be used more. That kind of thinking can't be tolerated anymore."

Karras has been a mover and shaker in the House. He wanted to take the tax protesters on head-first, put their tax-cutting petitions on the 1987 ballot and nip them in the bud. But other leaders held him back.

Dissatisfied with party efforts to help incumbents get re-elected, Karras headed a group of House and Senate members that raised more than $60,000 this year for incumbents. Democrats, who took 13 seats in 1986, gained only one seat on the Republicans this year. The Republicans hold a 47-28 majority in the House.

Karras sees the House Republicans as a unified group. "We don't have a 61-member majority anymore, like we did when I came in. So we don't have the factions within the caucus. The Democrats have more numbers, so we have to stay unified to prevail. We're more moderate socially, on moral issues, than in years past. But I don't think we're more moderate fiscally; we're still a pretty conservative bunch. I can tell you this: No one, on either side of the aisle, will suggest any new taxes this year."

Much speculation has been made over Karras' future. Does he want to run for governor in 1992, assuming Gov. Norm Bangerter doesn't seek a third term?

"I won't close any doors. I'm going to be the best speaker I can for the next two years. If that hurts me politically, I'll go home happy. If my reputation grows, so be it. I don't worry about that. You do what you think is right, and I will."

Before he makes any decision about running for governor, Karras said he'll survey the rest of the Republican field very closely. He doesn't want to be rejected. "Remember the pretty girl," he said with a smile. "I don't want her to say `no' to me. I'll be careful."