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FINDING FUNDS TO REPAIR ROADS PUTS LEAVITT ON SLIPPERY PATH

As Gov. Mike Leavitt and legislative leaders prepare for a November "growth summit" to review options on transportation and water funding, maintaining open space in urban counties and other matters, some lawmakers will be nipping at their political heels.

The nippers will be talking tax cuts.All kinds of tax cuts - like removing the sales tax from food and reducing or even eliminating the state's share of property tax on homes. Some might even be pushing a true flat-rate income tax in Utah.

Such talk isn't welcomed, I imagine, by Leavitt and legislative leaders.

True, Utah has had a lot of money in surplus over the past 10 years - upward of $750 million including the $75 million surplus in fiscal 1995.

But that money is all but gone, spent on a variety of state programs, pushed into the state's rainy-day fund, even used to settle a few lawsuits against the state.

What some legislators - Republicans and Democrats - want to do is cut taxes so future spending is down. Or at least doesn't grow as fast as it has been.

But Leavitt and leaders are looking down the road - literally.

The state has more than $2 billion in road needs; nearly $1 billion is needed just to add more lanes to crowded I-15 in Salt Lake County.

The dreaded "T" words - tax hikes - are even being used quietly in Capitol halls. Most likely the gasoline tax would be raised to pay off long-term bonds, which in turn would be used to raise money for the expensive highway projects.

But Leavitt and leaders will also be looking at transferring general tax revenues - like from the state sales tax - to transportation projects. And if they do that, they can't very well cut the sales tax from food or cut property taxes even more than they did this year.

How would citizens react if lawmakers cut the sales tax, for example, but then raised the gasoline tax? Wouldn't that be sending mixed signals?

Don't sell voters short, respond lawmakers who want the sales tax off food or property taxes reduced.

People can tell the difference between potato chips at the store and new lanes on I-15.

Historically, Utah roads have been funded (many would say underfunded) by user fees, be it a tax on tires, gasoline or whatever. The idea has been: You use the roads, you pay for the roads.

Like most things in government, lawmakers at times found ways around that, and some roads - like parts of the Bangerter Highway in Salt Lake County - have been paid for out of general tax dollars via bonding or just with cash.

But by and large, people using the roads have paid for them.

Leavitt and legislative leaders want to stick to that basic philosophy. But they need so much money so quickly they may have to cross that line in the sand. Even smudge it out with their feet and draw a new line.

It looks as if Leavitt will divert even more general tax dollars to road repair and expansion.

And he and leaders will want the $110 million the food tax brings in every year to do it.

Of course, 1996 is an election year for all 75 House members, half of the 29-member Senate and for Leavitt himself. Not a good time to block tax decreases - especially the much-hated food tax - or to raise the gasoline tax.

It will be interesting to see how Leavitt - who is very popular and a fine politician - winds his way through the "growth summit" and brings Utahns along to an idea of no tax cuts - maybe even a tax increase - in 1996.

Most likely it will be the greatest political challenge of his three-year administration.