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Utah budget looks tight with no extra cash in sight

There is no bail-out. There is no last-minute reprieve.

Final revenue estimates released Tuesday by the Legislature's top money man say there is virtually no extra cash for lawmakers to spend in an increasingly tight budget year.The announcement also means that as the legislative session enters its final two weeks the real crunch time is here. Money decisions have to be made now about state programs, state employee wages, borrowing and road funding in the fiscal 1998-99 state budget, which the 104 lawmakers are struggling to balance before they adjourn at midnight March 4.

Legislative Fiscal Analyst Leo Mem-mott told GOP leaders Tuesday morning there is $1.5 million more for the general fund and $700,000 more for one-time expenditures - a relatively insignificant amount in the $6.1 billion state budget.

"It really doesn't mean a heck of a lot," said Rep. Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, co-chairman of the powerful legislative Executive Appropriations Committee. "We're really not disappointed. If we have more, we'll always spend more. What this means is that we know where we stand, and we can now go about the business of building the state's budget."

The new revenue estimates do nothing to dampen several financial fires still to be fought during the legislative session's last two weeks.

- There is a huge difference - more than $78 million - between what the Legislature and the governor have recommended for state programs like schools, children's welfare, prisons and public safety.

The Legislature has committed more money to roads and buildings, while Gov. Mike Leavitt has suggested more tax funding for programs and borrowing more for roads and buildings. Subcommittees are voting on final budgets this week, so the fallout from these budget decisions isn't yet obvious.

There are significant problems with budgets for Corrections, higher education and health and human services budgets, Stephens said.

- Legislative leaders haven't yet said what salary increase state employees will get. Leaders have suggested a 3 percent raise, compared to 4 percent suggested by Leavitt.

The catch is $25 million set aside for salary "hot spots" - areas where state employee wages have not kept pace with other comparable public agency salaries. However, these areas have not been nailed down. So it's not clear what jobs legislators think are underpaid.

- Many people are going to be disappointed when Republican leaders take a budgetary machete to a formidable "wish list" of spending projects requested by lawmakers. One wants improvements to Memory Grove Park, another wants state money for the Roy museum, still another wants $85,000 for Fort Douglas Military Museum.

- It is still unknown how much the state will borrow to pay for roads. Leavitt has proposed borrowing significantly more than Republican leadership has indicted they will borrow.

Before the session began, Memmott's estimates were about $30 million less than Leavitt's. In an effort to put more money toward roads, Republican and Democratic members of the Executive Appropriations Committee then trimmed some cash out of Leavitt's budget in early decisions, making the spread between lawmakers and the governor even wider.

After a review of the revenue estimates Tuesday, Vicki Varela, Leavitt's deputy chief of staff, said the governor's office will not harp on the different perceptions about how much money will come into state coffers.

"(The difference) is less than 1 percent of the $6 million budget, so we're not going to focus the discussion on 1 percent of the budget," she said. "We're going to focus on the hot spots."

Compensation is one, she said. "I'm sure that will be one of the big topics over the next couple of weeks."

Leavitt's office is still reviewing budget committee reports to see what areas of state government are under the most pressure for budget cuts or reductions to the amounts the governor has suggested for state programs.

Legislative leaders had made several important budget decisions before Tuesday's announcements.

Lawmakers put aside $10 million in one-time and new ongoing revenues to pay for bills that either cut taxes or authorize new spending. All told, those bills add up to more than $200 million. So clearly all can't pass without significant cuts in other state programs or tax increases.

And tax increases are out there. Not in the direct raising of rates - a big no-no in this election year - but sneaking through in income-tax and property-tax shifts that will come if lawmakers don't act to stop them.

Sen. Dave Buhler, R-Salt Lake, has a bill that would stop an automatic increase in income taxes resulting from federal income tax breaks given by Congress last year. Buhler's bill would trim $8 million from 1998 taxes, saving the average Utah family what would otherwise be about a $35 income tax hike.

Several bills deal with the "intangible" property-tax issues for big, multicounty businesses. If that isn't addressed, property taxes on a $150,000 house in Salt Lake County would go up about $27 by some estimates.

However, since the state doesn't levy a property tax, the intangible question doesn't directly affect state revenues. But Buhler needs to find $8 million somewhere to sidestep the coming state income tax hike.