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Budget takes back seat on opening day

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With prayer, speeches and more worries about dwindling tax revenues, Utah's 104 part-time legislators formally started their Olympics-shortened general session Monday.

Lawmakers, who will take two weeks off during the February Games, have spent the past two weeks in special bill hearings and budget-cutting meetings.

Early Monday morning leaders of both parties met to hammer out final details on $202 million in budget cuts, but in the end they decided they needed yet another day to make those decisions, particularly as they would affect public education.

"It is our intent not to hurt the classroom," said House Speaker Marty Stephens, adding GOP leaders wanted educators to take the cuts in their administration. "We need an additional day to find out where they are going to make those cuts."

The Executive Appropriations Committee also identified some additional sources of funding: $2.2 million in savings from I-15 construction, $2 million from the sale of the Utah Technology Finance Corp. and $475,000 from Utah's share of a settlement with Bridgestone-Firestone tiremakers.

And then they decided how to spend it: $800,000 to Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to pay for outside legal work already performed and $120,000 for grasshopper control come springtime.

GOP leaders also want to shift $3.8 million into public education, while Democrats are hoping to persuade the GOP majority to spend about $18 million from the Rainy Day Fund to minimize further the impact to education.

Thursday, the House and Senate GOP caucuses switched an earlier vote and agreed to spend part of the Rainy Day Fund this year. But there are still legal questions with tapping the fund in midyear instead of waiting for red ink to actually flow come July, end of the fiscal year.

But details of budget shortfalls took a back seat to pomp and ceremony Monday, which was also Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the state.

In the Senate, Elder L. Tom Perry of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve offered an invocation followed by opening remarks by Senate President Al Mansell, R-Sandy.

Mansell reminded senators to be courteous in accommodating the public's right to be heard.

"I appeal to you as you are dealing with government employees and the public," he said. "Do so in a way that is not hostile. Be careful we don't lose our tempers."

In the House, Elder David B. Haight, also of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve, prayed that lawmakers "serve with integrity and ethical values" shown by the Founding Fathers.

In addressing the House's opening ceremonies, Stephens, R-Farr West, said he's concerned about three areas of governing in Utah: the continued diminishment of individual rights for purported good causes; the centralization of more power in the state; and the increasing trivialization of religious beliefs and morals in our society.

While asking for tolerance, civility and kindness, Stephens said: "Religious and strict moral beliefs are an inseparable part of our system of government. Not any one religion in particular, but the goodness and moral instruction which comes through belief in a divine being is inseparable from the success of this country."

In the past the Legislature has dealt with a number of issues some may say have moral overtones, including hate crimes and gay and lesbian marriages.

Utahns advocating both sides of those issues arrived Monday morning, hanging large yellow signs in the rotunda, one right in front of the main House Chamber doors proclaiming the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network.

Doug Wortham, co-chairman, said the 200-member organization is spending the day at the Capitol talking to legislators about hate crimes.

"We need to respect each other, especially in high school. If we allow (name calling) against gay and lesbian students and we remain silent in school, then that sends the message that later in life we will condone" violence against people because of their sexual preference, he said.

But GOP legislators have let it be known already that any hate crimes bill will have a tough time this session. And including sexual preference in such a bill would make it even a more of a difficult sell, as conservative groups like Utah Eagle Forum have taken a strong stand against creating enhanced criminal penalities for any special group.

E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com; spang@desnews.com