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Vital issues await Legislature

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This is hardly the time for state lawmakers to confront one of the most difficult budgeting years in memory. Virtually the entire state is distracted with Olympic preparations. Lawmakers themselves will be taking time off in the middle of their annual session so as not to get in the way of competition.

And yet a great deal of important business awaits.

The 2002 state Legislature began officially on Monday. Lawmakers were meeting in special bill hearings and budget-cutting sessions for two weeks to get a head start on things. The key will be to maintain focus and energy in a year when so many people are looking elsewhere.

Chief among the problems awaiting lawmakers is the budget. In all, $202 million needs to be cut, and it must be done judiciously with an eye toward real needs. House and Senate GOP caucuses — great sources of power in a Legislature dominated by Republicans — appear ready to spend part of the state's "Rainy Day" fund to cover part of the shortfall. This would be dangerous, especially if lawmakers choose to fund ongoing programs with this money. It would be merely postponing difficult decisions to a future year, wagering that revenues will pick up enough to offset the difference.

The only way to deal with this problem is through difficult decisionmaking, deciding how much should come from education and how much from other vital state needs. In addition, lawmakers have yet to hear from Gov. Mike Leavitt, who has promised to unveil a 1,000-day plan during his state of the state address next week — a strategy for capitalizing on the publicity the Olympics will provide. No doubt, this plan will come with a price tag of its own.

But the budget is only one of the issues lawmakers will face this year. They will decide whether to allow Utah's parents real choice when it comes to educating their children. The Legislature has a chance to let market dynamics take over education, leading to innovation, competition and true improvement in the performance of the state's many school students. Lawmakers will consider whether to allow tax credits for tuition payments to private schools. Frankly, it is an idea whose time has come, and it offers a ray of hope for Utah's overcrowded schools and its many challenges dealing with non-English-speaking students.

We also hope this is the year lawmakers get serious about attacking the DUI problem. Utah may rank among the lowest in terms of alcohol-related traffic accidents nationwide, but its rate is increasing, and the justice system is a tangled mess when it comes to handling such cases. Lawmakers are preparing a package of bills that will, among other things, set up a database for tracking DUI offenders and their sentences and require courts to track whether offenders actually perform community service as a part of their sentences.

These require careful attention. Of course, they will cost money, which leads us back to where we started. Lean years require strong leadership and a sense of priorities. Lawmakers would do well to focus on those things that will save lives and lead to long-term improvements. And Utahns, despite the many distractions over the next month and a half, should pay attention.