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(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, speaks with Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, after leaving a speaking engagement in the Utah State Senate, Wednesday, February 20, 2013.
Hatch warns Utahns of economic disaster, talks immigration

The senior senator offers warnings on looming defense cuts.

First Published Feb 20 2013 12:44 pm • Last Updated Feb 20 2013 10:53 pm

Sen. Orrin Hatch told the Utah Legislature Wednesday that forced belt tightening is going to happen and that he supports so-called sequestration for getting spending under control — though the immediate impacts of such large cuts will likely hurt national defense.

The Republican leveled most of his criticism at President Barack Obama and Democrats during two 30-minute presentations that led to standing ovations in both chambers.

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"I’m for sequestration," Hatch said, if Congress can’t cut spending. "We’ve got to face the music now, or it will be much tougher later."

With across-the-board spending cuts set to kick in next week, Hatch said sequestration would lead to an economic disaster in Utah as two-thirds of civilians working at Hill Air Force Base would be furloughed. He said it would be "devastating to our nation’s readiness."

The Washington Post reported the Pentagon’s tentative plan is to put civilian workers on furlough one day a week for 22 weeks.

Utah’s unemployment rate is 5.2 percent, compared to 7.9 percent nationally. Hill Air Force Base is the state’s largest employer with 24,000 Utahns working there.

The Finance Committee’s top Republican praised state lawmakers — both Republicans and Democrats — in light of the budget wrangling in Washington for being fiscally conservative. But Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, worried about how Utah would be able to operate with 27 percent of its budget coming in the form of federal dollars.

"It may be more serious than you think," Hatch said. "And that’s pretty serious."

The state auditor in a December identified federal funds as the single largest source of funding for the state: some $4.7 billion, dwarfing the other two top sources of income and sales tax.

Hatch spoke for just a few minutes but appeared content to let his talking points be guided by questions from the state lawmakers.


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He was asked about immigration reform by Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, as the state faces the impending implementation of a law it passed in 2011 that would establish Utah as the first to try and establish its own guest worker program.

Hatch, who was challenged in a primary by tea party favorite Dan Liljenquist, took a hard line on immigration reform then and even complained that the Dream Act — which would offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children — had become politicized. Hatch was an original sponsor of that legislation a decade ago but boasted Wednesday of voting against the legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 that gave amnesty to illegal immigrants.

There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

When answering Peterson, he echoed Sen. Mike Lee’s remarks before the Legislature Tuesday that he preferred tackling visa reform and securing the border instead of trying to tackle comprehensive immigration reform being pushed by Obama and some congressional Republicans.

"If we provide a pathway for people who come into our country illegally ... most of us believe they have got to go to the back of the line just like everybody else and play by the rules," Hatch said. "We have to solve this problem."

But House Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, said the country wants a comprehensive approach.

"I think people are frustrated by the federal government — Congress — to act on what is clearly their responsibility," she said.

Hatch promoted his own congressional bill, which would raise the cap on H-1B visas and said that is a good first step toward immigration reform. Republicans have been on the hot seat to address immigration reform since Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee, failed to garner 30 percent of the Latino vote in November.

Utah’s senior senator, who was a big supporter of Romney, also made reference to the former Massachusetts governor’s controversial remark about the 47 percent who would never vote for him.

Hatch upped the ante on the quote, by saying Romney was "wrong" and that he "was actually talking about the 51 percent" who cannot find jobs or are unwilling to work.

dmontero@sltrib.com

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