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Lawmakers battle over building bond

Conservatives in the Utah House are threatening to kill a state building bond this session, saying the amount senators want to borrow is too much.

But Senate Majority Leader Craig Peterson, R-Orem, reminds his House colleagues that in 1991 when the Senate and House couldn't agree on a bond, then-Gov. Norm Bangerter called lawmakers back into a special legislative session and lawmakers ended up borrowing $30 million more than the compromise level that wasn't acceptable just weeks before."The (House members) went back home for a month and heard from their constituents who said, "Hey, we want those state and higher education buildings after all,"' said Peterson.

Wednesday, House Republicans held a closed caucus where they voted 42 to seven to hold to a bonding level of $47 million. Tuesday in closed caucuses, House and Senate Republicans debated bonds both for buildings and for roads.

The road bonds are, to some, the most troubling - and could reach $230 million this year alone - a large amount, but needed to keep I-15 reconstruction on schedule.

Building bonds are also causing problems. House Republicans "are pretty solid" in holding down a building bond this year, said House budget chairman Marty Stephens, R-Farr West. Earlier in the session, GOP House members wanted just a $20 million bond. They believe they've bent considerably in doubling that level of borrowing.

Not enough, say GOP senators. They approve of the Capitol Facilities budget committee recommendation of $78 million in general obligation bonds to construct 10 buildings (including two prison expansions) and pay for a new Tax Commission computer system.

"That is within $7 million of the amount of general obligation bonds that we will pay off next fiscal year, and we think it's prudent borrowing since we really aren't increasing our indebtedness that much," said Peterson.

Several House conservatives said considering the amount of debt the state is taking on in transportation, $600 million last year and another $230 million or so this year, it's time to borrow less for buildings.

House Republicans want to borrow less money on several projects for which senators seek more funds. And the House conservatives want to build fewer expensive projects than the GOP senators favor, as well.

"We're willing to go out of here" and adjourn next Wednesday with no state bond for fiscal 1998-99, said Stephens. House Republicans will pass the $47 million bill, send it to the Senate and try to defeat amendments there or go to a conference committee to battle for their position, leaders said.

Peterson said members of both houses have decided Gov. Mike Leavitt's plan to issue $26 million in revenue bonds is not wise. Most of the "revenues" that pay off the bonds are leases charged to state agencies and so are really taxpayer dollars.

That spending should be added to the general obligation bond to get the lower interest rate such bonds carry, said Stephens and Peterson.

The battle between the House and Senate will probably be solved before lawmakers adjourn at midnight March 4. Legislative rules say the bond should be decided by Friday night, but rules can be suspended and in past years the bonding bill has hung around until the final night.

In 1991 GOP senators and House members couldn't agree on a bond and adjourned without one.

"We believe we are fiscal conservatives over here" in the Senate, said Peterson. He added that senators are ready to stare down House Republicans.

"I warn them: Remember what happened before; if we aren't close to where (the Senate) wants to be, we could end up borrowing a lot more in a special session."

Stephens just smiles at that. "Yeah, we could be called back (into special session). But we don't have to act on a bond even then."