Gov. Mike Leavitt's Growth Summit got going this week, with live TV coverage for one hour last Wednesday night.

It's too early to tell the impact of three days of hearings, speeches and citizen comments.It's not too early to see that despite comments to the contrary, the Republican transportation plan is slowly solidifying into concrete.

I watched the Wednesday night summit on TV, which is the way most Utahns viewed it. Only about 400 people showed up at Cottonwood High School to watch the hearing in person, and a TV scan of the audience showed me that many of them were Utah legislators or government employees.

My impression via the TV is that Democrats did well.

House Minority Leader Frank Pig-na-nelli and Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell zinged the Republicans several times over their proposed gas-tax increases.

I was a bit mystified by Senate President Lane Beattie's comment that the Legislature will raise the gas tax only as a last resort after everything else has been looked at.

Indexing the gas tax to inflation - which Republicans guess will increase the tax a penny a gallon a year starting in 1998 - is critical to the GOP transportation funding plan.

Those increases bring in $500 million by Leavitt's own figures, and without that money the state falls half a billion dollars short in the $3.5 billion planned over 10 years.

I imagine politicians always raise taxes as a last resort. And it does make sense that people using the roads should pay for them. But I don't see how Beattie or other GOP legislators can find $500 million out of state surpluses.

Of course, the question for the Democrats is where will they find $500 million so the gas tax doesn't have to be raised.

Democrats say just spend revenue surpluses, find other economies in state programs, set priorities, etc.

But for now, Leavitt's budget analysts don't see how $3.5 billion can be spent on roads over the next decade without the gas-tax hike.

In any case, the real political debates over the next 90 days - including the 1996 Legislature - will be over transportation costs.

As Wednesday night's live conference showed there's little argument among Democrats and Republicans over water development and open space preservation.

The state can pump some more money into water development programs - like some cash or bonds to build a dam or two on the Bear River.

But it will still be up to local water districts or cities and counties to figure out how to keep the sprinklers going in the neighborhoods.

And one has to wonder how the issue of open space even got on the conference agenda when other items like education and crime didn't make it.

Even the GOP working group, consisting of Leavitt and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, couldn't agree on a unified approach on open space.

They came up with four general principles and then said it was basically up to local governments to fund land conservation programs within their jurisdictions.

The Growth Summit, all in all, was a good idea by Leavitt.

It never hurts to talk about looming problems and let citizens feel better about the solutions their leaders pick.

But the summit doesn't change the basic fact that Republicans in the Legislature will pick these solutions.

And Democrats - as seen by the live broadcast - seem for once to have a unified political approach aimed at fighting any gas-tax hike; ready to use that political wedge in the 1996 elections.