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WOULD GRANTS UNDERMINE UTAH FUNDING?

Although Gov. Mike Leavitt is leading the states' efforts for no-strings-attached block grants, Utah legislators say it is they - not Leavitt - who would decide how the federal money is spent. And their priorities may be considerably different from those of Leavitt - or Congress.

How much the state contributes in general fund money for social programs - or even whether it contributes - may also become the subject of heated discussion. Current proposals do not require "maintenance of effort." So while the states now pay a share of costs for welfare and Medicaid programs (Utah pays about one-fourth), that likely won't be required with block grants. Without that money, Leavitt believes the state will not be able to run effective social services programs."I believe the state will have to maintain the match," the governor said in an interview with the Deseret News last week.

But Sen. Howard Stephenson, co-chairman of the Human Services Appropriations Committee and another strong advocate of block grants, believes government shouldn't be running social programs. "I think the entire social welfare structure needs to be re-examined and curtailed."

He admits government is unlikely to get out of the business of welfare services altogether. But if Congress decides to employ block grants, Stephenson said, "the Legislature has final authority, and we make those determinations of how the money will be spent."

Each year, the governor's office prepares a budget proposal that serves as the basis for the budgets that will be prepared by the Legislature's fiscal analysts. Both sets of proposals are presented to lawmakers, who select one or the other or create their own budgets. Traditionally, the human service and health panelists have followed their analysts' recommendations.

Sen. Charles Stewart, a member of both the Human Services standing committee and the appropriations committee, is also a strong supporter of the block grant approach and opposes proposals that would invest governor's offices with the authority to set human service priorities. He maintains it is Leavitt's role to recommend priorities, but lawmakers will decide.

Leavitt clearly hopes to play a role in program development and direction. Recently he appointed Kerry Steadman, former Human Services director, as director of strategic planning, with emphasis on the block grant proposals in Congress.

Because proposals call for a variety of cuts, capped growth and level funding, states must find ways to do more with less, Leavitt said. If states are allowed to take a "blank sheet of paper" and design programs to meet their social-service needs, "we believe there are terrific efficiencies we can make."

"Will there be some who lose benefits? Some programs will not exist. Can we meet the needs of citizens? Their needs will be met better. But you can't go through this amount of change without rough spots," Leavitt said.

Stewart admits a decentralization of welfare services (block grants are just the beginning, he said) may eventually "tip the balance back the other way to the point it needs federal balancing."

Count on it, said Rep. Gene Davis, a longtime member of the appropriations subcommittee.

"I'm not convinced (the Legislature) can be counted on to do the right thing," Davis said. "They say the governor proposes, the Legislature disposes. But as far as financing, look at the commitment to the poor or needy. It's poor.

"If I can be partisan, the Republicans haven't solved social problems, the courts have. Look at child welfare. It took a court settlement. In Medicaid, a lawsuit brought about change," he said.

"My concern is fairness. Social programs are not the only area of welfare in the state. Grazing rights, for instance, are all subsidized. Nobody's talking about that kind of welfare."