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Some win, some lose in last-minute flurry
Funding found for pet projects, public safety and education
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The 2000 Legislature's final hours Wednesday brought an action-packed conclusion to an austere budget season dominated by the need to beef up spending for Utah's public schools.

While education funding held sway over the 45-day session and the state's $6.9 billion budget, it was an ugly fight between Senate President Lane Beattie and House GOP leaders that became the session's final fiscal footnote.Beattie wanted to help developers of the huge Great Salt Lake Mall west of the Salt Lake City International Airport with a freeway ramp and mile-long access road. He got that only after agreeing to strip an extra $1.5 million in higher education salaries from a final budget bill.

"It wasn't a deal," claimed House Majority Leader Kevin Garn just after lawmakers adjourned at midnight. "He changed his bill" to remove state liability on the freeway exchange.

With a slower flow of revenues, the 45-day session was blanketed with a penny-pinching theme.

But as the clock ticked toward midnight and the final gavel, lawmakers worked magic for pet projects, higher education and public safety. During the incantations, some budgets got squeezed tighter, others got relief -- and at times, money seemed to come from thin air.

Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, found $50,000 from a little-known "Fire Academy Support Fund" for improvements at the firefighters museum.

Rep. Jim Gowans, R-Tooele, finagled funding for his annual leave bill.

Rep. Blake Chard, R-Layton lobbied for $174,000 lawmakers dedicated for two new troopers and cars to patrol the deadly U-6 that connects Spanish Fork with Price. "I can't explain to you myself where this money came from, but we're going to save some lives," he said.

The final hours of the legislative session did bring a surreal environment of money coming and going with little rhyme or reason.

In the last meeting Wednesday of the powerful Joint Executive Appropriations Committee, lawmakers restored $1.5 million to the higher education budget. "Unallocated money," said House Budget Chairman Jeff Alexander, R-Provo, when asked where the money came from.

"That's it? Unallocated money?" said House Assistant Minority Whip Patrice Arent, D-South Cottonwood, who has argued for more higher education money through the session. "Do you want it or not?" someone chided.

A close investigation of the Supplemental Appropriation Act showed the money was taken from the Utah State Tax Commission's troubled UTAX computer program, which has been behind schedule and over budget.

And in example after example, departments were squeezed to make room for a 6.8 percent increase in public education funding that bumped per-pupil funding from $1,901 to $2,006.

"We wanted to provide school districts options and authorization to use money for critical needs including compensation, textbooks, class-size reductions and other internal needs that are part of the WPU," said Sen. Dave Steele, R-West Point, executive appropriations co-chairman.

But budget woes marred other areas.

Final numbers for the Department of Corrections left the department down $7 million from where it wanted to be. Overall, the department received a $2 million boost over the current year's budget, with $1.5 million of that going toward officers' salaries.

The remainder will be devoted to a facility built to replace one the department is losing at Camp Williams and to pay for jail contracting. That's only part of a dismal corrections picture.

The $901,000 appropriated by the Legislature for jail beds only covers the costs in the increase of the daily rate the department pays to county jails to house state prisoners. The increase was mandated by the Legislature last year. What the money won't pay for is any new beds the department had hoped to secure with county jail expansions planned in Weber and Beaver counties.

Also on the department's wish list was a $500,000 appropriation to have the prisons' nursing staff certified as peace officers. The department wanted to offer the certification as a carrot to retain its underpaid nursing staff by including them in the state's 20-year retirement system. As it stands, the department is 25 nurses down because they keep leaving for better paying jobs.

The session also left health services aching.

"I've been hunting money all day," Rod Betit, Utah Department of Health director said as the session drew to a close. "And I haven't found any."

The Legislature cut the Health Department's administrative budget 5 percent, a $838,585 hit that meant cuts to nursing home inspections, an HIV/AIDS medication program and heart disease and cancer prevention programs.

The Department of Human Services made it through without the cut. "We're sitting pretty good compared to where we could have been," said executive director Robin Arnold-Williams.

A projected deficit in the Centennial Highway Fund was a chief concern as the session began. But lawmakers ultimately put off any meaningful decisions on the 10-year, $2.8 billion program until the 2001 Legislature.

Deseret News staff writers Dennis Romboy, Zack Van Eyck and Amy Joi Bryson contributed to this story.