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Deal struck on budget

GOP may spend extra $24 million — mainly on schools

SHARE Deal struck on budget

Republicans in the House and GOP Senate leaders have apparently struck a deal with Gov. Mike Leavitt that will restore $25 million to public education, higher education, health and human budgets.

Threatening a veto, Leavitt, also a Republican, has been pressuring lawmakers to restore upwards of $48 million to the budgets slashed during recent legislative budget meetings. Meanwhile, lawmakers last week were stuck at restoring only about $4 million, although sentiment was growing to increase the amount.

"The governor is substantially under what he was and we are substantially above where we were at," said Sen. Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni and co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee. "That's the process up here, you work toward compromise somewhere in the middle."

"We're in substantial agreement," said Leavitt spokeswoman Natalie Gochnour. Leavitt won't veto the budget-balancing bill soon to be introduced "unless there is some unexpected extraneous item we are unaware of."

What did Leavitt lose in settling on a smaller amount? "We wanted much more for higher education, a variety of programs. We also wanted $300,000 more for public safety. But great progress has been made" in balancing the budget this year, she added.

The Executive Appropriations Committee and Senate majority caucus will vote on the compromise Wednesday afternoon.

The compromise includes $18.5 million restored to public education, $5 million to higher education and $1.5 million to health and human services, GOP leaders said. House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said the extra cash comes in transportation-related surpluses — $3.3 million in savings in road bond payments and the rest coming from $32 million in savings from the huge I-15 reconstruction.

Just last week majority GOP lawmakers agreed to spend only about $4 million more in restoring cuts to the current budget year, as the majority party struggles with $202 million in revenue shortfalls.

In a closed caucus Tuesday afternoon, House Republicans voted to pump $23.5 million more into spending this year. A Wednesday morning caucus agreed to the slightly higher spending after GOP leaders met privately with Leavitt.

Senate Republicans yesterday couldn't make up their minds and remained divided not only on how to address the shortfall problem but if there even was a problem. B ut they wanted to get at least $25 million more in.

GOP leaders said many in the Republican caucus want to stick to their guns on budget cuts to all state programs, including education, never mind the governor's threatened veto.

Senate Majority Whip John Valentine said the threatened veto by Leavitt was discussed in a closed caucus after GOP leadership met Tuesday morning with the governor. Votes were taken by senators on a number of different approaches to the budget problem. But there weren't enough votes to decisively carry any one approach.

At the heart of the matter is education funding.

"We are starting to get information that (the original GOP budget-cutting budget) will affect kids in the classroom, and we don't want that. We are not going to have fewer teachers," Valentine said.

As it became clearer over the weekend that legislative Republicans were seriously considering not replacing $18 million lost to the Uniform School Fund this year because of dwindling personal and corporate income tax revenues, Leavitt warned he wouldn't stand by and let public schools be harmed. Through his line-item budgetary veto power, Leavitt can reject spending that the Legislature passes.

GOP legislators normally don't want to butt heads with their Republican governor. But with the world press coming to the Olympic Games in two weeks, no one wants to highlight Utah's education-spending problems.

If the $18 million isn't restored classrooms could be harmed, school superintendents warn.

In fact, the Iron County District and its teachers offered to work a day this spring without pay, a generous offer that apparently won't be needed.

Garn said House Republicans don't want to tap the state's $120 million Rainy Day fund, a savings account from which Leavitt suggested using $67 million from and legislative Democrats wanted to take $30 million.

In December, both the House and Senate GOP caucuses voted not to use the fund or any of the I-15 savings, either.

Last week both caucuses switched that policy, saying they would look to one-time savings sources to help out with public education.

Education leaders Friday held a press conference pleading lawmakers to use the Rainy Day fund instead of forcing districts to cut $18.5 million from their already committed budgets.

Iron County School District employees even pledged, as a last resort, to work one day without pay, and wrote their intentions in a letter sent to lawmakers last week. The gesture, agreed upon by 80 percent of the district's nearly 800 employees, would give back the state $112,000 to help solve the problem.

"We have no intention of asking other districts to do this. This is us alone, and we would like them to accept that as a symbol for the entire state," Iron Superintendent Mike Bennett said, calling Tuesday's House GOP position "the best news I've had in a long, long time."

The district asks three things of lawmakers: Research issues rather than rely on anecdotes; keep an open mind; and visit any public school for one day before the session concludes.

But if the House GOP caucus' idea materializes, those workers won't have to make the sacrifice.

Contributing: Jennifer Toomer-Cook.