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Panel OKs limits on budgeting

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The balance of power struggle between legislators and Gov. Mike Leavitt continued Wednesday when a House committee approved a bill that would restrict Leavitt's budget-cutting authority, and Leavitt's legal aide hinted Leavitt may veto the bill if it is passed unchanged.

"We've taken no veto position, but we don't want to tie the hands of the executive to manage the budget and avoid a possible financial problem," said Gary Doxey, Leavitt's staff attorney, of Rep. Kory Holdaway's HB109.

Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, is carrying the political water for many legislators, who didn't like the fact that Leavitt refused to call them into special session to deal with an anticipated $202 million shortfall in revenues.

HB109 says Leavitt can cut up to $25 million during the year to keep state spending in balance with tax receipts. But if a shortfall is more than $25 million, he can't cut more, the implication being he'd have to call a special session and let legislators decide further budget actions.

"This is a real shift in the balance of power (between the two branches of government) and I'm not comfortable with that," said Rep. Afton Bradshaw, R-Salt Lake.

Lynne Ward, Leavitt's budget director, said at the very least HB109 should be amended to only apply to "free" revenue _ sales and income taxes that go into the state's General Fund and Uniform School Fund. Those two funds now total about $3.5 billion. If the $25 million threshold applies to the whole $7 billion budget, which also includes transportation and federal funds, then $25 million is less than 0.5 percent _ a small target to hit in accurate budgeting.

"If you made $50,000 in your family, half a percent is $250. Who can plan a yearly budget that closely" and not fall short? she asked. And if the Legislature missed by $25 million, more than likely Leavitt would have to call a special session for risk the state's excellent AAA bond rating, she added.

Lawmakers came into special session twice in 2001 for non-budget reasons. At the $25 million short fall level, "you would have had four more special sessions" for budget short fall fixes last year _ in March, June, October and December, Ward said. "That is over-managing" by the legislative branch, she said.

But she didn't win the day. With both Republican and Democratic committee members voting aye, HB109 was sent to the House floor, where Holdaway said he would listen to the concerns of Leavitt. While the governor can veto HB109, he doesn't get a shot at constitutional amendments also working their way through the session that would allow lawmakers to call themselves into special sessions for any reason. Currently, only Leavitt can call special sessions and only he sets the agenda. Legislative leaders believe that will be changed this year and want Holdaway's HB109 as a companion piece of legislation.


E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com