Utah legislators started the tough decision-making on Thursday of cutting $272 million from the state budgets, and one casualty could be a new tax break for self-employed Utahns.
A "framework" for cutting the money was adopted unanimously early Thursday by the Legislature's top leaders in both parties, and it included the $18 million tax cut for self-employed Utahns to help them pay for their own health insurance.
That cut "is a critical element" to GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s health care reform effort, said Lisa Roskelley, Huntsman's spokeswoman.
"We want (legislators) to look at other options," than cutting that $18 million tax break, she said.
House Speaker Greg Curtis said that "there is disagreement" and leaders were working to preserve the cut.
Thursday afternoon the budget subcommittees met to determine which cuts to propose. Legislative leaders met again Thursday evening, with floor time for the legislators not planned until Friday.
Along with the tax break, there will also be cuts to staffing, primarily by not funding currently unfilled positions. But that does not mean there will not be some lay-offs.
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said he did not know yet how many state employees would lose their jobs because of the budget crunch.
State agencies submitted a list of cuts to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s office that included nearly 199 full-time positions, but it was not clear how many were actually filled.
Corrections, for example, said 44 jobs would need to be eliminated, while public safety would have to do away with 21 jobs, including 17 state trooper positions, and courts would lose 49 slots.
They may also not hire two new driving under the influence enforcement officers, or two special liquor law enforcement officers. However, those positions could be filled as part of liquor law reform, which is expected to happen during the 2009 General Session.
Valentine said none of the trooper jobs were actually filled at this time. "We won't lay-off highway patrol officers," he said. "We'll pull back funding for unfilled vacancies."
While the governor asked agencies to come up with a 3 percent budget reduction, which totaled nearly $185 million, the Legislature's GOP majority asked for an additional 1 percent cut.
The announced intent is to "back fill" the additional cuts from sources that are still being identified, including nonlapsing funds. But legislative leaders were expected to meet privately Thursday night to decide whether to use the money set aside to restore the additional 1 percent cut to soften the budget blow for some agencies.
Senate Minority Whip Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, said there needs to be further discussions on the amount being taken away from health and human services programs to keep from balancing the budget "on the backs of the poor" as well as from transportation, corrections and drug treatment.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, said Senate Democrats support the approach the GOP leadership is taking to deal with the budget shortfall.
Dmitrich said the real crunch will come when the 2009 Legislature convenes in January to start work on the new budget. "It's going to be very trying at that time," he said.
Senate leaders also said they want to make sure higher education leaders don't raise tuition costs mid-year to offset budget cuts.
Legislators have to cut $272.4 million from the general and education funds because of dropping state revenues in the current fiscal year, which only started July 1.
But the state is worse off by more money than that.
Lawmakers ended the 2007-08 fiscal year June 30 with an $81.5 million shortfall, which must be balanced as well.
And the current Transportation Fund is already $18.6 million short.
To find all that money, both in ongoing tax revenue and in one-time surpluses held in various funds, the framework put forward Thursday morning by the GOP leaders suggests:
• Taking $100 million via a 4 percent cut in state programs and then "backfill" in selected areas by $25 million. That would equal a 3 percent cut across the board if budget committees don't make targeted cuts.
• A 3 percent cut in public education would equal $75 million. But that will also be backfilled with surplus monies. Public education will not be harmed this year, but if revenues don't rebound by February when next year's budgets are set, it could take a hit then.
• $30 million in ongoing cash will be taken from building projects. That could be made up later by bonding, if needed.
• $15 million in ongoing money taken from state building repair projects.
• $18 million from tax cuts that would have started Jan. 1 for self-employed Utahns who buy their own health insurance.