Gov. Mike Leavitt cut short his trip to the Nagano Winter Games to offer some bleary-eyed damage control over reports that the state might be considering pumping additional tax dollars into the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games.
A jet-lagged Leavitt denied weekend newspaper reports that additional tax money might be used for the Olympics. But he acknowledged that state and local governments might have additional expenditures when the state hosts the Winter Games. Hopefully, he said, those costs will be offset by additional tax revenues from the million or more visitors who attend the Games."But there is a real distinction between that and putting tax dollars into the Organizing Committee," Leavitt said. "We will not; I don't see us putting any tax dollars" into the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
Leavitt blamed the "misunderstanding" on the Deseret News, which ran a story Sunday under a headline "Taxes May Help Fund Games, Leavitt Says."
The governor insisted he said no such thing, although his political foes were making hay with the story. Deseret News associate city editor Dave Schneider said the quotes attributed to Leavitt and his Olympics coordinator, John Fowler, were accurate. "We could have done a better job on the headline," he said.
Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, who just returned from Nagano himself, disregarded the spin.
"We choose to believe what the governor said, not what his P.R. people said he said," Howell said. "I think (Leavitt) got over there and reality set in."
The rumors raised other hackles on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have complained about SLOC's secret ways and the Legislature's lack of oversight. True or not, several powerful legislators weighed in.
"I wouldn't want to be the guy they send up here with his hand out. He'll be shot full of arrows," said Rep. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, who chairs the House Rules Committee and is a powerful voice in the Conservative Caucus. "In fact, I daresay it may be necessary to look at the Colorado approach to financing the Games and just give the bid back."
Colorado won the 1976 Winter Games only to have the bid rejected in a voter referendum. The Games were held in Innsbruck, Aus-tria, that year.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who heads the business-financed tax watchdog Utah Tax As-sociation, added that the state is "already embarrassed enough" by a $230 million shortfall in highway funding - due in part to an accelerated construction strategy aimed at overhauling I-15 before 2002.
Any additional funding request "wouldn't stand a chance," he said.
Leavitt says there won't be one, although Nolan Karras, his representative on the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, admits growing skepticism over SLOC's inability thus far to produce a "from the ground up" prospective budget for the Games. The budget has been promised by September.
Karras said the "longer it goes, the more nervous I get. Decisions are being made daily on where to spend money we don't know we have yet."
When Karras was House speaker in 1989-90 he sponsored most of the Olympic-related legislation that set up the state's involvement in the Games. He was behind the referendum that diverted $59 million in sales tax revenue to fund construction of Olympic venues.
Now, he's concerned about the "quiet, private" approach SLOC is taking, although Leavitt insists the process is among the most open in Olympic memory.
If down the road the committee suddenly finds it needs state support to pull off the Games, the secrecy will not have done them any favors, Karras said.
"I've told them, `If you can pull it off, you can be as quiet as you want,' " Karras said Monday. "But that approach will backfire on you if you can't."
Leavitt acknowledges several areas where he believes SLOC will be stretched. One is technology and the other, frankly, "is the care and keeping of 4,000 journalists."
"Am I saying there's no risk? I'm not saying that. There's obviously uncertainties," he said. "But we're going to operate the Games within the available Olympic revenues.
"Could you end up with a shortfall? Yes, you could," he said. "But you could also end up with a surplus."