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Keith Johnson, Deseret News archives
Composite photo illustration made from multiple frames of the Utah House of Representatives during the opening session of the Legislature last January.

SALT LAKE CITY — When the 2011 Legislature begins Monday, much of the focus will be on immigration, an issue that's dominated the headlines for months.

But lawmakers are also talking tough on another topic that's not attracting anywhere near as much attention — the state budget.

Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said voters in Utah and across the country have given elected officials a mandate in November to get government spending under control.

"The tough-guy label, so to speak, is reflective of, I believe, the people," Niederhauser said. "We were hearing without any question — and a lot of this was energy being released about the federal government —get your fiscal house in order."

Republicans are turning their backs on GOP Gov. Gary Herbert's $11.9 billion spending plan that relies on a one-time increase in income tax collections and a rosy revenue forecast to avoid another year of budget cuts.

Their concern is the so-called structural imbalance created by some $313 million in federal stimulus funds and other one-time revenues that won't be available in the new budget year that begins July 1.

Already, legislative budget committees are asking state agencies to come up with as much as 10 percent in possible cuts so they can adopt a balanced base budget in the first days of the session.

And GOP leaders tried unsuccessfully to get the governor to come up with a new budget that didn't include his proposed change in income tax collections for the self-employed, expected to bring in $130 million.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the governor appears more willing to take on lawmakers in his own party after his win in November.

Burbank said Herbert had feared sparking a political challenge from within the GOP last session because he had yet to be elected to the remaining two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term.

Now that's changed. "I think you might see more friction," Burbank said. "He might be a little less concerned about avoiding potential fights."

Herbert's new budget director, Ron Bigelow, downplayed the differences between his new boss and his former colleagues in the Legislature.

"I don't so much see it as a challenge," said Bigelow, who had served for years as the House budget chairman before making the move to the executive branch in December. "It's a different approach."

Bigelow said the question for lawmakers "is whether they believe the economy is actually recovering." The governor's budget, he said, "is more optimistic about the economy."

Whether state funding for education, prisons, roads, human services and other government programs ends up less than last year will depend on new revenue estimates due in late February.

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said he hopes drastic cuts can be avoided.

"I would like to get to the point where we can look at a flat budget," Dee said, "and budget the same budget as we did last year for a change."

The Legislature's minority Democrats, who saw their numbers shrink further in the last election, are siding with the GOP governor on the budget.

"We absolutely find ourselves more aligned with the governor," House Minority Leader Dave Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said. "Though in all honesty, we would like to push for even more funding, particularly for public education."

Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, went so far as to suggest a tax increase, something that Republicans have little interest in. Romero said the state could look at "slightly" increasing the gas tax to raise revenues.

Recent polls show the economy is a key issue Utahns want to see addressed. But even though lawmakers appear set on addressing illegal immigration, Utahns apparently don't find the issue all that pressing, according to a recent public opinion poll.

Immigration ranked sixth when Dan Jones & Associates asked residents to list which issues they worry about most that could be affected by the legislature and state government. Education, health care, the economy, jobs and taxes topped immigration, according to the poll of 504 Utahns conducted for UtahPolicy.com and the Exoro Group.

The survey further shows that while 86 percent of residents think undocumented immigrants in Utah is a serious problem, they favor the Legislature pursuing measures that allow those who are already here a chance to continue to live and work in Utah rather than focusing on enforcement.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said senators are not interested in passing a "Stephen Sandstrom bill," which is heavy on enforcement.

"It would send a bad message that is really not the Utah way," he said.

Controversial legislation in Arizona served as a catalyst for Orem Republican Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's proposal and is indicative of the mood in several states regarding undocumented immigrants. The federal government's inaction on the issue has states, including Utah, taking matters into their own hands.

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Lawmakers figure to debate at least a dozen different immigration bills this session. Legislation sponsored by Sandstrom and Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, who proposes a state-issued "accountability" card, have garnered the most attention so far.

"There's a lot of posturing on that" issue, Dee said.

The House, he said, leans more toward enforcement measures, while the Senate favors some type of guest worker program. "I am hoping," he said, "we can come together."

Waddoups said he sees the Legislature passing three or four complementary bills that would address enforcement as well as provide a way for undocumented immigrants to work.

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