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GOP leaders meet over the weekend to finish '04 budget

Republican legislative leaders met privately over the weekend and "basically balanced out" the $7.3 billion fiscal 2004 budget, House Speaker Marty Stephens said Monday morning.

The huge budget bills were printed Sunday and the House and Senate could vote on the lengthy budget bills Monday, said Stephens, R-Farr West.

In the massive documents are key tax and fee increases that would allow the Legislature to raise $19 million to "balance out" the spending plan. Among the hikes are higher fees for Utah's hazardous waste industry, and removing the sales tax exemptions on newspapers, vending machines and cable TV bills.

However, Stephens said he is pushing a plan that uses various one-time pots of cash — like $7 million in state tobacco settlement monies — that "will allow us to get out of here without repealing a number of sales tax exemptions."

Monday morning, the legislative leaders who sit on the powerful Executive Appropriations Committee approved the weekend decisions with little debate.

Typically, last-minute actions by the executive committee are a formality, with dozens of motions acted on that shift money into and out of individual state department budgets.

But this year, the committee passed the entire budget with one vote.

Saturday's secret meeting of the leaders, combined with the printing of the large budget bills before formal approval of the bi-partisan Executive Appropriations Committee, left some wondering Monday morning what was happening.

"They ram it through Executive Appropriations and then they ram it through the floor," Rep. Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, said. "It is completely scripted."

House Minority Leader Brent Goodfellow, D-West Valley, said Democrats identified "hot spots" for budget priorities in a list given to GOP leadership.

"They have been willing to work with us and have accepted most of our recommendations," Goodfellow said, like giving more money to Medicaid funding shortfalls and other programs within Health and Human Services Department.

GOP leaders say the budget is a responsible document, especially in light of another tough tax revenue year. If legislators can get out of the session without more budget cuts and without tax hikes for next year, it will be an achievement that few lawmakers could have predicted when they convened Jan. 20, said Stephens.

"We can (balance out) with just a few sales tax exemptions," said Stephens, if his "no tax increase" alternative is rejected.

Among those exemptions proposed to be repealed are newspaper subscriptions, cable TV bills and vending machine sales. The Senate approved repealing the tax breaks on Friday.

But taken out of the mix by the Senate was produce sold at so-called "farmer's markets."

Monday morning, the House passed a massive restructuring of the fees paid by hazardous and radioactive waste companies, a cornerstone of the proposed budget balancing plan. HB286, sponsored by Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas, would raise raise radioactive waste fees by 50 percent, plus doubling of fees on hazardous waste companies and imposing a new tax. That would raise $5.3 million for state coffers.

Stephens said the waste fee hikes in HB286 are not part of his "no tax increase" alternative. "We need those, no matter what" to balance out, the speaker said.

The unprecedented action over the weekend by leaders took place after lawmakers missed an self-imposed deadline last Friday for adopting the $7.3 billion spending plan for fiscal 2003-2004, which starts July 1.

As always, the huge budget will officially be balanced on Wednesday — the last day of the session — when a bill called the "Bill of Bills" is adopted. In that measure final spending adjustments are made.

Among some of the more interesting items included in the budget:

Help for Hill Air Force Base. Leaders put $2 million of one-time monies into the budget to add 2,000 feet of runway at an old airstrip at Dugway Proving Ground, as an alternative landing strip for F-16 fighter jets from Hill. The federal government is going through a new round of military base closures. And newly-elected Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, a former Utah House speaker, was quietly asking lawmakers and Gov. Mike Leavitt to put $2 million of state money into the runway project, even though it is a federal facility.

Hill's F16s need 12,000 feet of runway to land. The current airstrip is 10,000 feet. Bishop was at the Capitol Friday lobbying leaders and lawmakers on the measure.

$200,000 in other funds to help lobby Congress to keep Hill open.

$400,000 to build structures to protect dinosaur footprints near St. George.

$25,000 for the annual Winterfest celebrations in recognition of the 2002 Winter Olympics and encourage various winter sports federations to hold future contests at Utah Olympic facilities and ski resorts.

While GOP leaders have roundly criticized Leavitt's proposed budget for inadequately funding the Centennial Highway Fund, the documents passed out at the Executive Appropriations Committee Monday morning showed an ending balance in the CHF of a negative $6.39 million.

That negative balance will be made up by increasing the size of the highway bond.

The huge fund was created in 1997, with the aid of a 5-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase, to pay for the rebuilding of I-15 in Salt Lake County and 40 other road projects throughout the state. I-15 is finished, and rural lawmakers are concerned that the money-starved fund won't be able to complete the other promised project by 2007. The state will issue upwards of $100 million in bonds for the CHF next year, leaders say. Besides looking at removing some sales tax exemptions, lawmakers will also increase some current fees. All told, the money Utahns pay for any number of state licensing and regulatory fees will go up by $1.7 million. Fees on more than 350 services and licenses will go up.

For example, it will cost $100 more to get a license to train dogs. The state will charge for the first time all copies, faxes, microfilm related public documents. Everyone from dental gienists, to barbers and manicurists will be paying more. In an odd turn, it will now cost $12 for the death certificate for a still birth. Before, those were not required. Democrats in the Executive appropriation Committee watched the budget freight train with stunned silence and limp opposition. "It's a budget," said Senate Assistant Minority Whip Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, a member of Executive Appropriations. "It could have been worse. I guess it isn't all that bad."

Contributing: Donna Kemp Spangler