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Power and personality rule state appropriations panel

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As with many things, it is who you are and what you want that determine what you get at the Utah State Legislature.

Take Wednesday's meeting of the powerful Executive Appropriations committee.- Special funding for public education is an important and emotional topic in Utah - much harangued for puny payouts for a student-heavy population.

- Tobacco and funding for the programs to help kids stop smoking also weigh in heavily on the emotional and political scale.

- Roads and transportation, of course, are on everyone's mind.

Partisan politics aside, Wednesday's committee meeting illustrated that power and personality pack a huge punch in how the state decides its philosophy about what to support as a state.

In this case, Democrats lost and so - for the time being - did Utah's effort to curb smoking.

The Executive Appropriations Committee is the top budget committee in the state. It is made up of leaders on all sides of the 104-member legislative body elected by the public - Democrats and Republicans; members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Because Republicans are a majority in the House and Senate, they have more seats on the powerful committee.

Three subjects - public education, stop-smoking programs and roads - came up for discussion at the group's meeting Wednesday, called so leaders could disburse money to nine smaller committees that decide how to fund corrections, education, administration, natural resources, transportation and economic development efforts in the state.

Here's what happened:

Rep. Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee and one of the Legislature's top money men, proposed giving a $5 million gift to public education. His colleagues agreed - $5 million from money already set aside for the state's huge highway project would be diverted to education.

He wasn't specific. It would go to as-yet-undetermined "education initiatives."

Good enough.

A few minutes later, Stephens proposed to take another $5 million (about one-sixth of the available one-time surplus monies from the current budget) and give it to another, separate, unspecified "education initiative."

Through the legislative process, the education budget subcommittee would decide where best to spend the money, Stephens said.

Democrats didn't like that, saying decisions were being made without their input.

Stephens said that committee was the appropriate format for any kind of similar suggestion for funding.

So Rep. Steve Barth, D-Salt Lake, proposed the following: Let's give $1 million to stop-smoking programs. Instead of $5 million out of the transportation money for the "education initiative," let's make it $6 million for education and stop-smoking programs combined.

Fellow Democrats came to his defense.

Lawmakers told the public the gas tax money was going to roads, Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell said. "We told the public the cigarette tax money was going to stop-smoking programs, and that's where it should go," Howell said.

About $600,000 from $19 million raised by the cigarette tax increase went to tobacco-related prevention and education in 1997.

Inappropriate, said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. We can't decide now where money should go. That's the job of the budget subcommittees. "I'd hate to take that decisionmaking away from them."

Oh really, said Sen. Joe Hull, D-Hooper.

"Seems to me we dedicated $30 million to highways. If that's not dedication, I don't know what is," Hull said. "The youth in this state is every bit as important as the highways."

Although everyone agreed Barth's idea was a good one, the forum was wrong, wrong, wrong, he was told.

In the end, members of the Executive Appropriations Committee voted exactly along party lines.