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BANGERTER’S REVENUE-CAP LAW HAS COME BACK TO HAUNT LEAVITT

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Gov. Mike Leavitt released his recommended 1995-96 budget this week, and he expected kudos for a $30 million tax cut and congratulations on record spending for transportation, education and juvenile corrections.

Instead, he's gotten criticism.Not a big enough tax cut, say Democrats and some Republicans.

Worse, it looks pretty clear that Leavitt sidestepped the 5-year-old revenue cap law in order to spend more money on transportation - and Democrats and some Republicans are complaining about that, as well.

No one is willing to say for sure that Leavitt's budget would violate the law. (Technically, Leavitt is only recommending a budget to lawmakers, so even if it did go against the revenue cap law no violation would take place unless the Legislature adopted Leavitt's spending plan.)

Various state attorneys have looked at Leavitt's budget but say the law is so vague it's not clear the governor's budget would violate it.

Leavitt professes he's done nothing that former Gov. Norm Bangerter didn't do - that is, push "one-time" surpluses from one year to the next to facilitate more responsible spending. That's true.

But the difference here is that in pushing monies from fiscal 1995 to fiscal 1996, Leavitt gets under the revenue cap for 1995 by $1 million. If he didn't push $25 million into fiscal 1996 he'd clearly violate the cap - and state and legislative budgeters agree on that.

By pushing $25 million into a newly created Transportation Trust Fund Leavitt says he isn't spending the money now - so those funds shouldn't even come under the revenue-cap law.

But this is a shell game, isn't it?

Why have a revenue growth-cap law if one isn't going to abide by the spirit as well as the letter of the law?

The cap law has always been political by nature. It came about as part of Bangerter's last-minute taxation pledges in his 1988 re-election. In fact, if memory serves me, Bangerter and GOP legislative leaders had to amend, and increase, the percentage used in the law to set the cap even before it was passed in 1989 because the original percentage wouldn't have allowed the governor and Republican-controlled Legislature to spend as much as they wanted that year.

Now the cap law is proving a hindrance, if not an embarrassment, to Leavitt and Republican lawmakers who want to spend needed monies on Utah roads and bridges, which certainly need to be expanded and maintained.

How ironic it would be if lawmakers had to give back the extra $25 million to taxpayers - as the revenue-cap law strictly enforced requires - and then turn around and raise the state gasoline tax to pay for transportation needs.

But the law is the law, and Republicans aren't looking very good to voters if they mouth spending limitation platitudes, vote for record-growing budgets (as they have the past five years) and then with a wink ignore a spending-cap statute.

The minority Democrats love this kind of stuff.

- On another issue, Utah House and Senate leaders have finally set their committee assignments for the 51st Legislature, which convenes Jan. 16.

This is mostly inside baseball politics that only lobbyists, lawmakers and a few others care about. But committee assignments do reflect who is in favor with the new Republican and Democratic leadership - who make the assignments - and who could be a player on certain issues. Sometimes you learn as much from who is left out as who is included.

Rep. Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, who lost a close speakership race to Mel Brown, R-Midvale, was named House chairman of the joint budget committee - the most powerful committee in the Legislature. So Stephens is still technically in leadership and gets institutional power as well. Rep. John Valentine, R-Orem, who was budget chairman, is now chairman of the new, open and scaled-down House Rules Committee. He'll face the challenge of bill flow with TV lights on - and dealing with grumpy lobbyists who don't get their bills up for a vote.

Brown's leadership team clearly wants a crop of 1992 freshmen - re-elected in November - to learn the ropes: Rep. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, is House vice chairman of the joint budget committee, and nine other Class of '92 members are committee vice chairmen. Rep.-elect Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan, was named Human Services Committee chairman even though he's technically a freshman - a very unusual move. However, Frandsen served in the House before and is well-versed in Human Ser-vices needs.

No real surprises in the Senate, either. However, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, who was elected to a newly created leadership post, was also allowed to keep his chairmanship of the Revenue and Taxation Committee. Usually, leaders don't serve as committee chairmen. But there are only 20 GOP senators and so many committees that freshman majority party senators lead committees right off the bat. Hillyard had to stay a chairman by reason of low numbers.