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A CLOUD OVER WEATHER FORECASTS

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For the most part, Republicans are on the right track when it comes to trimming the fat out of the federal government and reapportioning duties between Washington and the states. But they shouldn't abandon common sense along the way.

We make this point because Rep. Dick Chrysler, R-Mich., is sponsoring a bill that would eliminate the Department of Commerce. This page already has outlined the trade concerns such a move would raise. But there is something equally disturbing.The bill would force the National Weather Service to operate on a budget 25 percent smaller than it was in 1994. Weather Service officials claim that would force them to close 62 of the current 118 weather stations. Salt Lake City's forecasting office - a sophisticated $3 million facility recently outfitted with the ability to spot storms amid the state's mountainous terrain - may not survive such a cut.

No doubt Weather Service officials are painting the gloomiest picture possible in an effort to save their budget, but weather forecasting is not an intrusive federal program in need of drastic cuts.

New technology and equipment allows forecasters to warn of impending disasters, tell farmers when to protect fruit trees and other crops, and keep pilots apprised of storms and other potential weather problems.

The technology is expensive, and so are the workers who need to operate the equipment and interpret the data. But together they can save lives and protect property.

A new Doppler radar system on Promontory Point has dramatically improved weather forecasts in Utah. Private companies probably couldn't afford to duplicate such equipment, nor should they have to. Weather forecasting is a job that properly belongs to government.

Chrysler so far has persuaded 65 fellow lawmakers to co-sponsor the bill. Most of them are freshman Republicans, including Utah's Enid Waldholtz. They are eager to make changes and to shrink government. That's commendable. But the Weather Service cuts would push the knife through the fat and slice muscle and bone.