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Republicans meet with UDOT about transportation funding

While legislative leaders deal with dozens of funding issues and labor over tiny but important budget adjustments in public, handling of the big money - transportation dollars - is being debated behind closed doors this week.

Republican leaders met again Tuesday morning with Utah Department of Transportation officials in an effort to understand and identify the $200 million UDOT says it can save over a 10-year period.Some Republicans are unconvinced that the money, generated by cutting back on engineering and design work, will be realized in actual cash. Instead, it might just be, as Democratic legislators have argued, a reduction in the amount of money that would otherwise be spent on road projects - so-called "soft" dollars.

They are in a difficult spot. If they admit that the $20 million-a-year in savings really doesn't exist in hard cash, they give Democrats the dreamed-about chance to say "I told you so." If they maintain the money exists, they must convince other lawmakers and the public to accept something they've been uncomfortable with for more more than a year, since UDOT Executive Director Tom Warne presented the idea.

"If they want to come over and say,`please don't say we were right,' well, OK. Just show us how you're going to pay for the roads," House Minority Leader Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake, said Tuesday. "This isn't about taking credit. It's about good government.

"The issue for me is not trying to recognize efficiencies. The issue for me is how to pay for the roads. (Republican leaders have presented a roads) budget that has gaping holes."

House budget chairman Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, said Republicans will continue to discuss the $20 million in efficiencies identified as a funding source for the Centennial Highway Fund for next year. If $20 million is not an accurate amount, more bonding could be necessary, he said.

Senate Republicans were scheduled to discuss the matter in a closed caucus Tuesday afternoon. House Republicans aren't quite ready to debate the matter, said Stephens.

A bond of more than $200 million is possible for next year to make up for a $190 million Centennial fund shortfall already identified and any other shortcomings Republicans determine exist as a result of the "efficiencies" savings plan. The $190 million is needed for the fiscal year beginning July 1 to keep Centennial projects, including the reconstruction of I-15 in Salt Lake County, on schedule.

Jones said Democrats have not been part of the process. He said he has been told that the Executive Appropriations Committee - made up of leaders from both parties - will make a final decision on all road funding issues in its Wednesday afternoon meeting.

Warne has argued that whether it's considered "hard" or "soft" money - cash or savings - the department's efforts to streamline its operations still should be recognized as a monetary contribution to the $2.83 billion Centennial Highway Fund.

UDOT has identified about $37 million in physical cash it can transfer into the Centennial fund over the next 10 years. The question many lawmakers have is how to categorize any remaining savings the department says it has and can continue to produce.

"The issue concerns what is cash and what is value instead of increased value," Warne said Monday. "I think everybody knew the $200 million would be a combination of cash transfers and . . . more projects for the same amount of money."

If about $163 million from UDOT efficiencies is not real money, some GOP lawmakers have suggested the $2.83 billion Centennial fund should be increased to $3 billion to more accurately reflect the total cost of the 10-year statewide rebuilding plan.

The idea is that if UDOT would have spent nearly $200 million more over 10 years had it not figured out how to do the work more efficiently, then the Centennial projects would have totaled $3 billion.

But that's a ridiculous idea, Stephens said. Why would lawmakers increase the Centennial fund by an amount of money the state is receiving? Efficiencies are a funding source, not new spending, he stressed.

Part of the problem in recent weeks has been that some of the UDOT efficiencies realized this year and for 1999 have been put into the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, the projects UDOT would normally complete each year, and not transferred into the Centennial Fund.

At least, that's how some lawmakers understand it.

Warne said that's mostly because of the strings attached to federal funding. Savings realized in a program funded by any of 32 different federal sources cannot easily be shifted to pay for an independent project without jumping through some regulatory hoops.