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SMOOTH SEA AHEAD FOR WEDNESDAY'S SESSION - MAYBE

Next week's special legislative session, the first in more than a year, may actually go smoothly.

Maybe.Utah's 104 legislators will gather Wednesday at 3 p.m. to consider half a dozen items, none which should take great debate.

But so far no agreement has been reached on a controversial local-government impact-fee bill. That measure won't be on Gov. Mike Leavitt's session call unless agreement among local governments, homebuilders and others can be reached. Both sides have held a number of private meetings, and an agreement may be forthcoming. But nothing yet.

And don't count on Leavitt adding his "conference of the states" to the call, nor the question of a "loophole" in the $90 million tax cut that could shrink the cut by $40 million to $60 million.

Leavitt isn't buying into those items at all.

"Pigs will fly" before the governor puts his conference of the states resolution on the call, says Vicki Varela, Leavitt spokeswoman.

Four leaders of Ross Perot's United We Stand Utah sent a letter to lawmakers this week asking that they rescind their approval of a resolution supporting Leavitt's conference. The conference, which has been struggling across the nation lately, is an attempt to return some balance in the federal-state relationship.

Leavitt has gotten national legislative and governor associations to support the conference, tentatively scheduled for Philadelphia this fall. Utah's was one of the first state legislatures to pass the conference resolution.

But a number of groups, including Perot's Utah chapter, are against it, saying the conference could lead to a constitutional convention and unwanted changes to the nation's most basic document.

Nonsense, Varela said. Leavitt's conference won't be on the agenda because the conference couldn't, and never would, become a constitutional convention. To think otherwise is just a lack of understanding of what the conference is, she added.

Varela and Charlie Johnson, Leavitt's chief of staff, also say Leavitt isn't inclined to put on the legislative agenda SB247 - the bill that cut Utahns' property taxes by $90 million this year.

Howard Headlee, executive director of the Utah Taxpayers' Association, says local school district superintendents got SB247 sponsor Sen. Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni, to amend his bill the last two days of the 1995 session. Among the several amendments, says Headlee, was a "mistake" that exempts school districts so-called "10 percent of basic" property-tax mill levy from the two-year rate moratorium.

To guarantee that local cities, counties, school districts and other property taxing entities wouldn't just raise their rates and take some of the state's $90 million tax cut, lawmakers were careful to "freeze" property tax rates. Local officials could only raise rates if they put the matter to a vote of their constituents.

But, says Davis County superintendent Rich Kendell, no one bothered to tell district officials what was happening with SB247. "The Senate had passed the bill before we even saw a copy of it."

Kendell and others rushed to the House and asked for an exemption from the public vote on the "10 percent of basic" mill levy. That specific levy allows school districts to impose, every year if they want, a property tax up to 10 percent of the basic school levy set by the state. The "10 percent" levy money can only be used for textbooks, equipment or other specific items.

Blackham agreed to the amendments. But there was little discussion as the amendments and SB247 flew through the House and Senate.

Headlee says Kendell and others hoodwinked lawmakers. If all the districts take the full 10 percent, between $43 million and $60 million of the $90 million tax hike could be eaten up. "And (legislators) would never have approved that if they knew what they were doing," says Headlee. Thus the need to close the loophole in the special session.

That won't happen, say Johnson and Varela, because historically the "10 percent of basic" tax hasn't been used to its full potential by districts, and so it really isn't much of a loophole at all.

Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, and Blackham say perhaps the "loophole" is too large. But in any case, school districts raising their rates under the exemption would still have to go through Truth in Taxation - hold public hearings, advertise in the newspaper, do all the things they'd normally do when they raise rates. Citizens could then complain.

"Why subject us to a public referendum when we just make a technical change in rates to bring in proportionately what we've brought in before under Truth in Taxation,?" asks Kendell.

"Why should school districts be treated differently than cities, counties and mosquito abatement districts - why shouldn't they have to have a public vote to raise taxes like everyone else," asks Headlee.

Leavitt is answering those questions, for now, by saying he'll watch to make sure school districts don't "raid" the $90 million tax cut. But such a "minor" threat doesn't warrant special session action now.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

What Leavitt wants discussed - for now

Gov. Mike Leavitt wants the following items discussed during the April 19 special legislative session. He can add more items later if he wishes:

- Delay for a year the effective date of a new law eliminating the state's minimum-mandatory sentences for child-sex offenders.

- Make four changes to the budget of the Department of Environmental Quality, giving the department $4 million and imposing some special user fees.

- Allocate $526,700 for disabled Utahns.

- Specify just how $1.5 million in funds for underground-storage-tank cleanup is to be spent.

- Reapprove an automobile registration bill that for technical reasons was disqualified, even though it passed the 1995 general session.

- Senate consideration of a number of gubernatorial appointments.