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Utah lawmakers set priorities for `hot spot' funding

In a late-night, numbers-crunching session Wednesday, lawmakers set priorities for "hot spot" funding and approved a 3.5 percent increase in state worker pay and a road construction borrowing plan.

Members of the Executive Appropriations Committee met behind closed doors Wednesday to fine-tune decisions on how to slice the $6.1 billion state budget pie.Hot-spot funding recommendations were far from fully funded. Yet while several items were axed, jail contracting received $3.5 million - more than twice that recommended by the Executive Office, Criminal Justice and Legislative Appropriations Subcommittee.

That windfall, however, was $1.5 million less than corrections director Pete Haun says the state needs for 325 jail beds.

Courts, corrections and elected officials received $7.8 million of the nearly $21 million sought in hot spot funding. The Utah Council for Crime Prevention didn't get any money from the Executive Appropriations Committee, so the group remains about $75,000 short of its budget needs.

The committee approved a $657 million higher education budget, in step with subcommittee recommendations. But that accounts for only a 1.8 percent increase in the overall base budget. Higher education officials expected a 5 percent increase, said Higher Education Commissioner Cecelia Foxley.

Nevertheless, Foxley was pleased with $3.5 million in "hot spot" funding, including $1.4 million for enrollment growth and $800,000 for technology initiatives.

It was unknown whether the state pay increase would affect tuition. Higher education officials hope to maintain a recommended 2.7 percent tuition hike.

The committee also approved a 3.5 percent increase in the weighted pupil unit, or basic public education funding. A 3 percent WPU increase was approved by the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

But public education's wish list funding was a surprise. Top priorities, including school nurses, were absent in the $8.25 million recommendation. Rather, $800,000 was OK'd for Schools for the 21st Century and $5 million for class-size reduction - $700,000 and $8.6 million less than their fiscal requests, respectively. Neither bill has passed. Another $500,000 was set aside for charter schools and $3.5 million for teacher supplies.

Judy Ann Buffmire, D-Salt Lake, disapproved of the last-minute shuffle.

"It seems to me you've (transferred) someone else's priorities to the committee's priorities," she said. "I consider this, personally, not to be in the best interest of the program."

House Budget Chairman Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, said the caucuses had everyone's best interests in mind when hashing out the recommendations.

In other hot spot funding, Health and Human Services got about $6 million of the $22 million sought, including $100,000 for nutrition programs for the elderly and $1 million for a waiting list for people with disabilities. The subcommittee recommended $6 million and $5 million for the programs, respectively.

In transportation, lawmakers agreed to borrow another $190 million for road construction projects in '99, above the $600 million borrowed for Centennial Highway Fund work in '98. The $190 million, however, could climb to $240 million, they said, if an expected $50 million in federal funding for I-15 reconstruction does not arrive next fiscal year.

Republicans squashed a Democratic effort to reduce transportation bonding by $27 million. That's how much will be spent next fiscal year on engineering, environmental work and right-of-way acquisition for the planned West Davis Highway, even though construction of the 13-mile road has been delayed.

"I'm very nervous about investing that kind of money right now when there is so much uncertainty about the project," House Minority Leader Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake City, said of the four-lane parkway, which would be the first segment of Gov. Mike Leavitt's proposed 120-mile Legacy Highway.

Jones' motion to cut the $27 million out of UDOT's $1.02 billion budget for '99 received the support of the other four Democrats on the committee, but its 10 Republicans voted against it.

Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, met earlier in the evening with about two dozen Utahns who oppose construction of the Legacy Highway.

Beattie, who lives within a few hundred yards of one of the proposed routes, told them he no longer objects to the highway. He said he is convinced that by forming a western boundary near the Great Salt Lake shoreline, the road will in fact protect wildlife habitat and farmland rather than quicken its development.

Stephens said the Executive Appropriations Committee will meet Friday to finalize the capital facilities budget and bonding issues.