Legislators’ refusal to fund state liquor stores threatens closure of as many as nine stores and reduced hours at the remaining ones, but Gov. Gary Herbert says he won’t let that happen.
Herbert had requested $1.8 million to avoid store closures for the year, but the item was not included in the budget recommendations approved Friday evening.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said he doesn’t believe that the situation at the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is so dire and no store should close.
Auditors investigating DABC discovered that spending to administer the department had shot up more than $3.5 million over five years, he said, an unchecked slush fund without legislative authority or approval.
"If this was a big concern for DABC, I think the growth in administration could have avoided closing stores," he said.
The liquor store funding was among the issues Herbert raised with legislative leaders during a meeting with Waddoups and House Speaker Becky Lockhart on Thursday, but Waddoups didn’t budge.
"The speaker and I both told him that we don’t see it happening," Waddoups said.
But Herbert’s spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said Friday evening that the governor won’t let liquor stores close. The governor plans to use money that was intended to pay down building bonds that were never issued to keep the stores open in the coming fiscal year.
"It’s our intent to keep everything operationally the same," Isom said. "It’s a temporary Band-Aid, but the governor is determined that not one store will close."
Lawmakers cut $2.3 million from the DABC budget last year, which forced the department to scale back hours and threatened some stores with closure, before the governor stepped in with funding to keep them open.
After a scandal at DABC, which cost the former executive director his job, interim director Francine Giani was able to squeeze out $500,000 in savings, but that left the department $1.8 million shy of what was needed.
Lawmakers finished their work on the bulk of the state budget Friday, approving about $420 million in new spending for the coming year.
After negotiations between the House and Senate and the governor, they added $4 million to a two-year pilot project aimed at providing insurance coverage for children with autism. It is expected to cover about 700 young children.
"It’s in there if the bill passes," said Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. "There’s a lot of concern it won’t pass."
Funding has also been included in the budget to cover additional disability services, mental health services for youth and meal delivery for the elderly.
Jan Ferre, with the Utah Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities, said the budget covers most of the areas her group was most concerned about. She was especially pleased with the mental health funding.
State employees and public school teachers will likely not see any pay raise under the tentatively approved figures, as increased pension premiums will eat up any of the new money they would see in their checks.
The budget covers 12,500 public school students attending classes next year and increases the per-pupil funding slightly.
Kory Holdaway with the Utah Education Association said he is hopeful more money might be coming in the closing days of the session, but he would like to have seen more of the growth in the budget go toward education.
"There’s still a lot of water to go under the bridge," he said. "It’s an improvement from years past, but when you look at that in relation to the growth in revenues, there’s some additional opportunities we’re missing."
Lawmakers are also providing $30 million for state building maintenance and $22 million to renovate the electrical and heating system at the University of Utah, although that is less than half of what the university had requested.
Hillyard noted that changes could still come, and Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said his understanding is that there is still as much as $30 million that hasn’t been allocated.
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