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State GOP leaders hog pork funds

A legislative budget committee has set aside a "special initiatives" fund, filled with money from failed pork projects, to funnel cash into dozens of pet programs and projects that mostly benefit members of Republican leadership.

Indeed, one proposed $200,000 expenditure was identified only as the "Mel Brown Project." Brown, R-Midvale, is House speaker and wanted to use the money to fund an occupational therapy program at the University of Utah.That money was stripped from a final budget recommendation passed by the Economic Development and Human Resources Appropriations Subcommittee late Wednesday after inquiries by The Associated Press.

The remaining projects funded through the $2.5 million fund for the most part have bypassed the Legislature's normal process for prioritization.

Several have only a tenuous connection to economic development or human resources - for example, the $100,000 for an equine park near Lehi, hometown of House Majority Leader Christine Fox-Finlinson.

Others are pet projects, such as a $10,000 appropriation to the "Seek Haven" domestic violence shelter in Moab, put on the list by Rep. Keele Johnson, R-Blanding, the committee co-chairman. Johnson, who had been reported for spouse abuse last spring, said he had been a supporter of the private, not-for-profit group "for some time."

Johnson also got $20,000 for the Blanding Dinosaur Museum. Rep. Kevin Garn, R-Layton, a member of the committee and the House majority whip, obtained $15,000 for the Layton Arts Council, helped get $500,000 for the purchase of land at Defense Depot-Ogden, and helped a couple of House colleagues get another $60,000 for libraries in Logan and Kanab.

Rep. Dave Jones, the House minority leader, got $100,000 for the Marriott library at the University of Utah, and Rep. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, rules chairman and committee member, got $50,000 for the Southwest Symphony.

Another $50,000 went to the Utah Festival Opera Company in Logan at the behest of Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, the assistant majority whip. Its director, Michael Ballam, sang "Danny Boy" for the committee two weeks ago.

Garn insists the process was fair and doesn't think it accurate that those projects be hung on him, even though he brought them to the committee and saw to their funding.

"It would not be fair to say this is anything out of the ordinary," Garn said.

"It's just not sinister," added House budget chairman Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, who went to Garn for the money for DDO.

Stephens acknowledged, however, the advantage of being a member of leadership when it comes to making sure money is found for special projects.

"If you're saying that, as member of leadership, somebody might listen when I ask for consideration of a project, I won't dispute that," he said.

Other lawmakers can only hope for such consideration, although a few who have the ear of someone in leadership found their projects funded as well.

Every other lawmaker must compete for the relatively few dollars allocated for new projects and bills each year. Consider that, this year, only $10 million is available for bills with a cumulative $206 million price tag.

The list is winnowed through a drawn-out and sometimes painful series of prioritization meetings. Often, lawmakers only get a fraction of what they asked for. More often than not, they get nothing.

Unless, that is, someone in leadership is carrying the bill or has taken an interest in it. In that case, finding the money suddenly becomes much easier.

Consider 1996, when Brown slipped a $1 million appropriation for a golf course in his hometown of Midvale into the budget on the last night of the session. That same night, another $500,000 was found to help Provo with a plan to build a professional baseball diamond.

Neither of those projects ever got off the ground, and Brown this year boasted that he would return the state's $1 million.

He did, and it went straight back to the Economic Development committee, along with the baseball money, where it will be reallocated among the numerous projects close to the hearts of his leadership colleagues.