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Legislators try to squeeze, pinch dollars

Published February 28, 2013 7:56 pm

State budget • Trying to make the budget balance will be a tight fight.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Like trying to squeeze into "skinny jeans" after a long winter, Utah lawmakers are trying to smush more than $1 billion worth of funding requests into a budget with revenues that can cover less than half that much.

"This is a little like doing your budget at home. There are always more needs or wants than money you can find," said House budget chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville.

After weeks hearing one state agency after another make its case for the scarce dollars, budget leaders now start saying "No" to the dozens of lower-priority projects and programs that will not get funded.

Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he hopes to have the massive list narrowed down to something more manageable — having it 80 percent to 90 percent finalized — by Monday so leaders in the House and Senate can begin meeting with Gov. Gary Herbert to work through final sticking points.

Some of the big-ticket items include $72.5 million to cover the 12,500 new students expected to enroll in public schools; $25 million to fix an accounting error made by the state Office of Education; $25 million for a 1 percent increase in per-pupil spending; and $23.5 million for a 1 percent raise for state employees and $18 million for the same increase for faculty and staff at Utah's colleges and universities.

Add to that $100 million that would be needed to pay for all of the new bills that could become law. Legislative leaders have said they will pay for a total of $4 million, divided between the House and Senate.

With that kind of demand and $264 million in ongoing money, plus $161 million that can be used for one-time needs, Hillyard says his mantra is "don't be surprised" if you don't get funding.

Hillyard said there is no interest now in using state money to fill an estimated $39 million in federal funds that will disappear at the end of the week when the sequester — $85 billion in automatic spending cuts nationwide — are due to kick in.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said he doesn't plan on tinkering too much with the priorities recommended by the subcommittees, unless there is a good reason to rearrange items.

Niederhauser said that he and House Speaker Becky Lockhart want to get the list narrowed down by next Friday, so they aren't scrambling in the closing days of the session to finish the budget.

"It actually gets pretty easy from here," he said. —

Gov: 'Butt-biting time'

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that he expects the sequestration to kick in at the end of the week and the $85 billion in cuts will hurt, but are necessary.

"We have always said that if we continue to [borrow and spend] it's going to come back and bite us in the butt," Herbert said. "It's butt-biting time right now. So we're going to find some pain. We're going to find some inconveniences here."

However, Herbert compared the spending and debt problem in the country to a tumor, and said that while it may be painful, it's best to have the tumor removed before it does more damage.

In the long-run, the governor said gaining some fiscal stability will provide certainty to the economy and help spur long-term growth.