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Utah Legislature opens on a harmonious note

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Republican and Democratic lawmakers called for harmony and cooperation Monday morning as the 1998 Legislature opened but then members of both parties said there would be constructive criticism where appropriate.

"We have never been a player in major (budget) decisions in the eight years I've been up here," said Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell in a morning Democratic news conference.Howell and House Democratic leader Dave Jones said over the next 45 days Democrats will point out problems in how the GOP-dominated Legislature and Gov. Mike Leavitt, also a Republican, run the state.

Leavitt will give a hint of his 1998 priorities Monday in a 6:30 p.m. State of the State address. Jones will give a short Democratic response to Leavitt's address, both of which will be carried live by most local TV and some local radio stations.

Jones said Monday morning that he doesn't resent the Republicans running the state and making the major decisions. "The electorate made it obviously clear (at the ballot box) that they want Republicans in charge" of state government, Jones said. But for the good of democracy, Democrats demand to be heard and where their ideas make sense, listened to.

House Speaker Mel Brown, in his opening remarks, congratulated the 75 House members on their service, adding: "We were elected because the majority of voters share our views on the issues and because we achieved a level of confidence and credibility in the minds of a majority of our constituents."

Hinting at some differences between conservative GOP lawmakers and Leavitt, Brown said lawmakers this session must be careful not to burden future generations with debt. Leavitt wants to borrow more money to find $191 million needed this coming fiscal year to pay for extra spending on I-15. Republican leaders seem ready for a bit more bonding but want to take at least $30 million a year from future state spending before using a state credit card.

Senate President Lane Beattie opened the session by reminding senators of the state's economic and social prosperity of recent years. He said that while there are signs the state's rapid population and economic growth may be declining slightly and housing may be less affordable, Utah's future remains bright.

With that preface, Beattie said lawmakers "must keep in mind the ever threat of extra growth in government," saying the Legislature has done well in recent years to prevent economic growth from translating into expansive state spending.

He said times have changed - for the better. There is less graffiti, the state's crime rate is less than other states' and the family continues to be strengthened. On the latter point, Beattie expanded, encouraging senators to hold the needs and sanctity of the family in utmost regard as they propose and vote on bills over the next 45 days.

Beattie, R-West Bountiful, said "we must take a paradigm shift in our thinking" and focus more on the ability to touch lives at a very early age." The ability to impact children when they reach preschool age is vital to developing a stronger Utah, he said.

On the issue of cooperation, several years ago Democrats targeted closed GOP legislative party caucuses for criticism. This year the bull's eye seems to be the traditional Tuesday and Thursday morning Republican leadership meetings - always closed and often including the Legislature's budget officers who work on complicated budget proposal with the leaders.

"The major budget decisions are made in a closed meeting," Howell said. "We asked (Republicans) to open the doors, let the citizens and the press in. End this constant par-ti-san-ship in the budget."

Republicans respond that Utah is about the only state in the nation where every lawmaker, Republican and Democrat alike, sits on budget committees. The Executive Appropriations Committee, with Democratic leadership on board, approves all budget numbers in public hearings.

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Democrats listed a number of priorities for them over the next 45 days: tax reform in the shape of lower income taxes on those making less than $100,000 year and a phaseout of the sales tax on food; a "real" anti-smoking campaign for teenagers; "radical" reform of the property-tax "circuit breaker" law, which gives tax breaks to elderly and poor homeowners; and help for businesses affected by I-15 construction in Salt Lake County.