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Tightened budget belts may cause pain

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The headlines in recent issues of the Deseret News basically tell the story: "Empty pockets," "State wants to fight DUI problem but lacks money" and "An unpaid furlough is budget option."

For the first time in a decade, Utah's lawmakers are going to have to contend with what many families deal with with routinely: a shortage of funds.

And, after becoming accustomed to spending annual increases in tax dollars generated by a growing economy, it won't be easy for Utah's 104 part-time legislators and Gov. Mike Leavitt to make the necessary adjustments.

The boom days of healthy state budget surpluses — surpluses that resulted in the state's budget doubling over the past 10 years to its current figure of $7.3 billion — are over. At least for now.

With a sluggish economy, lawmakers face a $202 million shortfall in revenue in the current year's budget. They need to solve that monetary crisis before they begin working on next year's budget, which is also strapped for funds.

How to make up that $202 million shortfall is what lawmakers are debating now during preliminary meetings preceding the state of the legislative general session on Jan. 21.

These pre-legislative gatherings became a necessity when lawmakers decided to take two weeks off (Feb. 8-22) for the Winter Olympics.

Both Democrats and Leavitt favor using the state's Rainy Day Fund to help balance this year's budget. That, however, goes against the wishes of the Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. Caucuses from both bodies have voted not to use any of the state's $120 million Rainy Day Fund to balance this year's budget.

Lawmakers must now find what to cut so they can take action when the Legislature convenes Jan. 21.

Lawmakers plan to make the bulk of the cut — $150 million — by eliminating construction on new buildings. That, of course, just postpones what needs to be done to a later date.

Other areas being considered include reducing funds for the Department of Human Services, which involves programs connected with the Division of Child and Family Services; the Division of Mental Health ; the Division of Aging and Adult Services; and the Division of Services for People with Disabilities.

Higher education, the Utah Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Public Safety are among other state agencies that are facing cuts.

The most controversial suggestion involves having Utah's 20,000 public employees take a one-day unpaid furlough. That would save the state $10.5 million, according to state figures.

But Senate Republicans, who pitched the furlough idea Tuesday, seemed to be backing off on it the next day as they were criticized not only by Democrats and Leavitt, but leaders also from their own party.

While local lawmakers struggle with their suddenly shrinking budget, they were criticized for not doing a better job during their time of plenty by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

In its report, Chris Atkins, ALEC's national director of the tax and fiscal policy task force, said that Utah was one of the state governments that had not lived within its means during the last decade and that its carelessness is what led to its current fiscal crisis.

Whatever the cause, or more likely, causes, lawmakers face at least a mild budget crisis. They need to set aside partisan politics and unitedly take the steps that best serve Utahns.

That may be as difficult as deciding what areas of the budget to cut.