The state's $8.27 billion budget, adopted Wednesday, will spend $637 million more on public and higher education, Human Services, corrections, courts and other programs.

And they finally made room to spend $28,600 for dead bunnies.

"Help me understand the killing of the bunnies," asked Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem.

One of the last items considered was a special appropriation for Utah farmers who, under orders of state Agricultural Department, incurred the cost of killing thousand of rabbits several years ago after they were infected by a "serious disease," said Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland.

Discussing the cost of killing rabbits was one example of how lawmakers spent much of the last hours of the 2004 session — debating whether or not to spend $10,000 here or $50,000 there, mostly on various pet projects.

Among the budget highlights:

The state will spend $173 million more for health programs, most of it coming from increased Medicaid funding and the federal match that goes with it.

Another $1.4 million to boost funding for food stamps, $2.4 million more for needy families (TANF funds) and another $1 million for people with disabilities.

Funded enrollment growth in public education, pay raises for teachers and various other education programs to the tune of $126 million more.

Funded a $30 million reading initiative, but half of the money will come from local school districts.

Approved $84.6 million in bonds for a health sciences center at Salt Lake Community College, remodeling the Swenson building at Weber State, building a National Guard readiness center, remodeling the Capitol, purchasing the Oxbow jail for a women's prison and building a library on the San Juan campus of the College of Eastern Utah.

Approved a $48 million bond for more highway construction.

Spent $2 million more to help save Hill Air Force Base.

Gave state employees a 1 percent pay raise and another 1 percent in one-time bonuses. Prosecutors with the Attorney General's Office and troopers with the Utah Highway Patrol got a 3 percent pay increase on top of that.

Higher education didn't suffer any budget cuts, maintaining the $565 million in state funds awarded last year, but several major requests went unfunded, including $40 million for enrollment growth.

All in all, next year's budget represents a 7.7 percent increase over the current year. (Roughly two-thirds of that increase is due to increased federal funding coming to Utah.)

"The budget is balanced as it always is," sighed Sen. Leonard Blackham, co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, adding, "We showed fiscal restraint."

For the most part, anyway. The last night of every session is always filled with projects that need to be funded, discoveries of untapped pots of cash to pay for it, and impassioned pleas to spend just a little bit more.

Like Dougall's bunny compensation amendment, which had some House members putting their fingers behind their heads imitating rabbit ears as Dougall's amendment nearly went down to defeat.

For the most part, the state budget really is no laughing matter, legislative leaders say.

Hours before Republicans called a press conference patting themselves on the back for a budget job well done, Democrats were using the same room to lambaste Republicans for not doing enough.

Constant through the session, for example, advocates rallied in vain for millions more to restore cuts made to adult vision and dental services in Medicaid.

While the Legislature did agree to throw more money at a disabilities waiting list, the result is that many people will continue to wait for critical services.

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Meanwhile, all kinds of items slipped into the last-minute budget bills.

One example: Advocates for nonprofit groups that run kids' programs got language added requiring a study to see how much state money is going either to county youth programs or other nonprofits who get most or all of their monies from the state.

One GOP leader said the Boys and Girls Clubs, among others, are complaining that their programs are being robbed of youth participants by government-funded competitors.


E-mail: spang@desnews.com; bbjr@desnews.com

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