Gov. Norm Bangerter has been talked out of giving $8 million to human services programs by GOP legislators who are worried about spending money before voters decide in November whether to take the sales tax off food.
And although the governor said he hasn't broken a promise to the state's poor, abused, handicapped and otherwise disadvantaged residents, their advocates and Democrats disagree."We believe the elected leadership in this state is playing politics with the lives of poor people. They are making promises and then reneging on them, raising hopes and then dashing them," said Steve Erickson of Utah Issues.
"It's mean and it's gutless," Erickson said. "We have to wonder if human services are being held hostage to the passage of the sales tax off food initiative."
Just two weeks ago, the governor told members of the Utah Human Services Coalition he would call a special legislative session if necessary to pay for what they said are "critical needs" that can't wait until January.
Among the programs on their list are those aimed at helping handicapped babies and toddlers, providing the poor with medical care and seeing that mothers and their children have enough to eat.
But after meeting privately with Republican leaders from both House and Senate for about an hour Thursday afternoon, Bangerter said there would be no effort to increase the human services budget before the election.
Bangerter said House Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, agreed that it was better not to call a special session.
But Dmitrich said Friday he told the governor a special session should be avoided only if there is another way to get human services the $8 million needed.
And Senate Minority Leader Rex Black, D-Salt Lake, said the governor didn't even ask him about the issue. "He never talked to me about no special session. He's reneged on his promise to those poor people. What we said was there should be a special session, but only for Human Services' $8 million, nothing else. There's a real problem in those (Human Services) programs and we need to solve it now."
Bangerter's statements after the GOP leadership meeting reversed comments he'd made earlier in the day during his monthly televised press conference on KUED, when he said he was still looking at calling a special session to deal with human services needs.
Bangerter also said during the Thursday press conference that there is a way the Department of Human Services could go ahead and spend the money needed, as long as lawmakers agreed to supplement their budget when they meet in regular session in January.
The governor was the first official in the state to oppose the initiative taking sales tax off food, which was placed on the ballot by Independent Party Chairman Merrill Cook.
Cook said it is "pernicious for the governor to blame the food-tax initiative as the reason he's not going to give the babies of poor women enough formula to eat." One program needing $1 million more is a poor-mothers-with-infants food program. "We didn't have the (additional) $8 million for Human Services in the budget, not because of the food-tax issue, but because Republican legislators spent money on special interests like $1 million for the ski industry sales tax break, more than $1 million buying the Heber Creeper and $20 million on the West Valley Highway. Don't tie hungry babies to the food tax, it's wrong."
After his meeting with GOP legislative leaders, Bangerter said they will join him in voting against the initiative. He said all of them agree that if voters approve the initiative, they are asking for tax cuts rather than a tax shift.
So, even if lawmakers were willing to go along with him on increasing the human services budget now, the governor said, the programs would face cuts later if the initiative passes.
"It would not be prudent to do that with the threat that the money will not be there on an ongoing basis," Bangerter said.
The governor is planning to meet with members of the Human Services Coalition and legislative leaders on July 9, according to his press secretary, Francine Giani.
No special session also means that there definitely will be no additional question on the November ballot asking voters whether they want the sales tax reduction made up by cutting programs or raising other taxes.
That was only other issue Bangerter had considered placing on a special session agenda, although he has been asked to put issues ranging from domestic violence to allowing beer to be sold "to go" before lawmakers.