Utah House Republicans want to give taxpayers and voters at least a $90 million tax cut next year.
After meeting in an all-day, closed caucus, the 55 House Republicans emerged to say they also want to give certified public school teachers another $2,500 raise next year, just like they gave them this year.
It takes 38 votes to pass a budget or bill in the 75-member House. And House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said Monday evening that he has at least 38 votes for a number of critical tax-cutting and budget-setting matters to be considered by the 2008 Legislature, which convenes next month.
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said while Senate Republicans had not put a number to the amount of any tax cuts next year, the House Republicans' $90 million "is in the ballpark" of what the Senate may be willing to do also.
"It's amazing we have so much consensus to start out with," said Valentine.
The catch may be GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who had no tax cuts at all in his $11.7 billion recommended budget released last week.
Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said the governor "is willing to work with lawmakers" on tax-cutting ideas.
"It is early yet" to come to a $90 million number, however. "But we always believed that our health-care reform would have as a component" giving independently employed Utahns a pre-tax health-insurance break. "We just never put a number to it."
But getting more uninsured Utahns health insurance "is still a major goal," Roskelley said.
Clark says he has the votes for:
• A $15 million property tax cut for all homeowners and businesses. The state would pick up local school districts' share of a $30-million early reading program started by former Gov. Olene Walker in 2005.
• A $15 million personal income tax cut for Utahns independently employed who pay for their own health insurance. While Utahns employed by a firm that provides health insurance can pay their share of the health insurance in pre-tax dollars, self-employed individuals would be given that same tax break on their personal state income taxes.
• About $60 million in ongoing new tax revenue growth set aside for further tax cuts, the specifics to be determined as the 45-day general session moves forward.
• Nearly $120 million of the new, ongoing tax revenue "taken off the table" at this point and set aside for state government growth.
• A $2,500 raise for each certified public education teacher, which will cost the state about $90 million.
• No bonding to build new state buildings.
Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, head of the House's GOP Conservative Caucus, said $90 million in tax cuts "is not enough" considering all of the new money flowing into state coffers next year. "We would like more," he said, speaking for the 25 or so members of his group. "But it will be a tough fight" to get more tax relief considering that Huntsman didn't put any tax cuts in his budget.
Clark said that while Utah's economy is still strong, the economies of surrounding Western states are weakening, giving state budgeters pause.
By taking so much of the estimated $578 million in new tax revenue growth for next year "off the table, either through tax cuts or by just not spending it off the top, we are taking our foot off of the gas pedal" of state government spending. "We haven't started to break yet" but coasting is a smart move as the state enters the 2008-2009 budget, which takes effect July 1.
Clark said over the past three years lawmakers have given tax cuts nearing $400 million.
Huntsman, all 75 House members and half of the 29-member Senate are up for re-election next year. But Clark said House Republicans weren't looking at voters in suggesting a $90 million tax cut now when Huntsman doesn't want any general tax reductions and GOP senators hadn't set a tax-cutting number (although they did say they wanted some kind of property tax cuts this year).
"It doesn't take an election year to remind us whose money we are spending up here ant it isn't ours," said Clark, clearly tired after more than eight hours of conducting the House GOP caucus, which also discussed health-care reform, road building, education spending and a dozen other monied topics.
Huntsman and GOP lawmakers who pushed through a controversial private school voucher program in the 2007 Legislature said after voters soundly defeated the tax-sharing plan last month that they "got the message" and wouldn't be pushing vouchers in the 2008 session nor punishing public education teachers, who united with PTA rank-and-file and Democrats to oppose the new voucher system.
And giving teachers another $2,500 guaranteed raise (individual school districts could pump up teacher pay even more) is certainly one way for the majority Republicans to keep their post-voucher promises.
"The governor wants a 7 percent increase" in the weighted pupil unit the state's basic school funding formula, said Roskelley. She said House Republicans' $2,500 raise for each teacher is one way to do part of that hike.
"We put higher teacher pay as our top (budget) priority. We're grateful" House and Senate Republicans feel likewise, she said.
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