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Utah funds tight? Trim budgets

But most in poll don’t want state employees idled

SHARE Utah funds tight? Trim budgets

Most Utahns want their legislators to trim state budgets because of tax revenue shortfalls, but they don't want more state employees laid off in the process, a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows.

Lawmakers start budget hearings Tuesday — in advance of the 2002 session that begins Jan. 21— aimed at trimming an estimated $200 million from the current state budget. They need to cut that much so the state budget won't be in the red at the end of the fiscal year in July due to an economic downturn and unrealized tax revenues.

Pollster Dan Jones & Associates found in a recent survey that 45 percent of Utahns prefer cuts in budgets but not to the point of laying off state employees. Ten percent said to trim the budgets but also look at raising some general tax rate to bring in some more money — which could also prevent layoffs.

And 14 percent said not to cut the budgets at all — just raise some taxes to make up the shortfall.

Only 20 percent said to cut budgets as needed, even if that means laying off some of the state's 20,000 workers, Jones found.

Republicans hold two-third majorities in the House and Senate, and it will be the GOP caucuses that ultimately decide how to balance the budget.

Already, both the House and Senate Republican caucuses have voted not to tap into the state's $120 million Rainy Day fund to make up any of the $200 million shortfall.

Democratic lawmakers, however, and GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt favor using the fund to balance out the budget, if need be.

"That's what the fund is there for," says House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake. "It was created to deal with a sudden change in the economy. It's there to react to short-term steps and it makes sense to use it. Everyone paid into the fund (through excess tax revenues), and using it is a way to spread the burden of the shortfall around."

But Republican lawmakers fear the current economic downturn in Utah will last longer than September of next year.

Leavitt believes the state's drop in revenues will turn around by the third quarter of 2002.

If it lasts into fiscal 2003-04, however, GOP leaders worry the Rainy Day fund may be needed even more than it is now.

"It's not raining that hard yet," says Senate Majority Leader Steve Poulton, R-Holladay.

Jones found that 45 percent of Utahns agree with Leavitt and the Democrats — use the Rainy Day Fund if you need to to make up part of the $200 million shortfall this year.

While there are clear partisan lines drawn in the Legislature on whether to use the fund, Utahns in general don't differ that much by party. For example, half of those who said they are Republicans said the Legislature should use the fund. Forty percent of Democrats said to use it. A higher percentage of Democrats also favored raising some kind of general taxes to offset the revenue shortfalls.

As the tough realities of budget-cutting sink in during budget meetings over the next two weeks, the GOP caucuses' positions may soften, leaders warn.

Leavitt has already had state department heads trim, on average, 4 percent of their budgets. He recommended around $65 million come from the Rainy Day Fund, saying further cuts would harm state programs or lay off workers who would just need to be rehired after the economy turns around later this year.

The governor believes once legislators get into core budgets, they'll see it will be too tough to cut more.

But House Minority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, says private businesses periodically go through "waist tightening" and it will be a healthy process for state government to do likewise.

The past decade has seen record increases in revenues and spending, with yearly budgets sometimes growing faster than inflation and population. The state's $7.3 billion budget has about doubled in 10 years, and one year lawmakers had $500 million in "new" money to spend.

E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com