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Will Walker be cautious or bold?

Olene Walker
Olene Walker

When Olene Walker takes the oath of office today as Utah's 15th governor, her predecessor, Gov. Mike Leavitt, will hand to her responsibility for a world of problems.

The state is coming out of an economic recession, there is a mounting crisis in how to fund higher and public education, and there are federal mandates to be met with Medicaid.

And her close friends and allies say she really has only two choices.

She can either bandage the wounds in the state budget, keep a low profile and pass the problems onto her successor 14 months from now.

Or she can act boldly, using her temporary position to advocate for radical changes that someone with future political aspirations could never consider during an election year.

Like a public referendum on a tax increase for education.

"I think she will be bold," said Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, and a kindred spirit with Walker on education issues. "She'd be smart to do that."

Allen is far from alone in her belief that Walker will use her tenure to take bold actions that might shock politicos who expect her to do little more than steer the Leavitt ship of state through its final months.

Although most assume Walker, at age 72, will not seek the GOP gubernatorial nomination herself next year, should the public respond favorably to her "bold" actions, she could even use that to launch her own gubernatorial bid, "I hope she runs," said former Republican legislative colleague Afton Bradshaw. "She'd be wonderful."

Walker will formally unveil her agenda during her inaugural address today. But the nuts and bolts that will make that agenda a reality will not be known until December when early revenue projections are known and she puts the final touches on a budget crafted by herself and Leavitt.

Early estimates are the state will have enough new revenue to pay for the increased number of children entering public schools, Medicaid funding increases mandated by the federal government and maybe even a small pay increase for state workers.

The current year's budget sees a small $10 million surplus so far. But there is likely little new money next year to improve education funding — something about which Walker feels strongly.

Utah ranks last among the states in per-pupil spending. And during his farewell address Monday night, Leavitt warned of dire political and economic consequences if state leaders do not act now to meet the education funding crisis — a crisis fueled by 145,000 additional students expected to enter the public education system over the next 10 years.

But House Majority Leader Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, warns that should Walker suggest a tax hike — even for underfunded public education — it would not be embraced by most Republican legislators. "I don't think it will pass," he said Tuesday.

House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, who is running for governor next year, agreed. "I don't think there will be a tax increase next Legislature for anything, including public education," he said.

If lawmakers demur on approving a tax increase in 2004 — a year when all the House and half the Senate is up for election — they could instead ask voters via a referendum to approve a tax increase for education.

Leavitt himself hinted at such a referendum for education as an option in his farewell address Monday night. "This is a need of such seriousness that public buy-in at the ballot may be needed," he said.

But Stephens could not say if lawmakers would put a tax-hike referendum on the November 2004 ballot. "It's too early to tell," he said.

As for tuition tax credits, Walker has taken the same position as Leavitt, who was chastised by the 2003 GOP convention for not supporting them.

Like Leavitt, Walker has said she would veto a tuition tax credits bill until public education is adequately funded.

Asked if she thought a Republican could oppose tuition tax credits and still be one of two governor candidates to come out of the 2004 GOP convention, Walker said: "I don't think so."

But budget and hot political items are just two problems facing Walker.

One insider grumbled that it appears Leavitt left the "tough choices" for others to make, and that Walker may be just the person to tackle it head on.

"We'll find out if she is a Leavitt clone pretty quick," he said. "Is she going into it with the attitude of just getting through with her hide, or will she take the bull by the horns?"

Nolan Karras, a close friend of Walker and a GOP gubernatorial candidate himself, said it will actually help Walker's credibility with the Legislature to be a lame duck governor acting in the best interests of the state without an ulterior political agenda.

"Assuming she does not run, she can use the powerful position to capture the public attention on issues and she will set the agenda," he said. "The Legislature has many voices, but she has one, and that is not a disadvantage."

But the Legislature will be a tough nut to crack. Both bodies have shifted decidedly to the right, and Walker — despite her protestations that she is a conservative — is viewed by most as a moderate, especially on education and social issues.

"She is really a compassionate conservative, and she was before the phrase was ever coined," Allen said. "But she recognizes the foundation of economic development is dependent on education."

Those who know her agree she is a master at working her conservative colleagues in the Legislature. And she does it with charm and finesse, even when she finds little in common with arch-conservative philosophies.

Said Stephens: "The Legislature is willing to let Olene have the reins of power and we support her. We'll listen to her ideas and try to be helpful as best we can."

"She is a people person, and she deals well with them no matter their political bent," said Bradshaw. "She won't agree with them on everything. At least I hope not."

In fact, her friends and advisers say her biggest strength is her legislative experience — Walker served eight years in the House, two of those years as majority whip. She knows the state budget backward and forward, and she knows how the legislative process works.

And where Leavitt was seen by lawmakers as aloof and secluded in his office, Walker was busy buttonholing lawmakers in committee rooms and hallways. That is something that is not expected to change in the upcoming session.