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Huntsman threatens vetoes

Governor says ‘extreme’ bills ‘weaken’ his office

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Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is getting tougher with state legislators — threatening to veto two bills and insisting the sales tax be removed from food at the cash register.

Speaking to the Deseret Morning News on a wide range of subjects, Huntsman said that halfway through the 2006 Legislature, he's feeling more comfortable as the state's chief executive and will see to it that his office remains a strong partner in setting state policy.

"I know what I want at the end of the day, and I know what will satisfy me," said Huntsman when asked if the much-hated sales tax on food will finally be repealed. "I'm optimistic that we will have that outcome."

Huntsman said he will veto HB352 and SB70 should they pass the Legislature. Rarely does a Utah governor promise a veto before a bill has finally passed. And Huntsman made no such threats during the 2005 Legislature, his first in office.

Huntsman said both bills harm what he sees as the balance of power between his office and lawmakers. The governor said he's warned the sponsors that he'll veto the bills "because they are too extreme."

HB352 would change the budget process so the Legislature could refuse to adopt all or part of the next year's budget and let the current budget for that disputed part just continue until the new one is finally voted into law.

Huntsman contends the change "would weaken my ability to negotiate" a compromise budget with legislators.

Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, had a veto-proof 52 co-sponsors when she first introduced HB352. But by Friday, Dayton only had 46 co-sponsors listed on the bill. Mike Mower, Huntsman's deputy chief of staff and spokesman, said "six representatives who are co-sponsors have said they will remove their sponsorship" should Huntsman ask for it — and apparently they already have.

It takes 50 votes in the House to override a gubernatorial veto, 20 votes in the Senate. HB352 awaits full House debate.

The other bill that Huntsman said he'd veto, SB70, would give the Legislature the power to override a gubernatorial veto of nuclear and other hazardous waste-siting permits. Currently, either the governor or Legislature can stop a hazardous waste permit without the consent of the other.

SB70 has passed the Senate, 22-6 and is on Monday's agenda of the House Business and Labor Committee.

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, who along with House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, introduced a bill similar to HB352 last year then pulled it back, said he doubts "very seriously" there'd be enough votes to override a veto on HB352.

"We've handled the problem," Valentine said, noting lawmakers don't have to worry about ending the session without a state spending plan in place because now, under their own rules, legislators approve a base budget early in each general session.

Huntsman said he has reason to hope that neither bill will pass, but if they pass, his vetoes will not be overridden. Valentine, who likes SB70, said it would be "a challenge but probably not impossible" for lawmakers to come up with the necessary votes to override that veto.

In the coming week, the much-anticipated new state revenue estimates will come in from a panel of economic experts. Legislators and the governor alike hope for higher estimates. Huntsman predicted they'll come up with "a healthy number," but he declined to predict how high tax revenues will jump.

No matter what the revenue numbers are, Huntsman said, he's "very optimistic" that he and legislators can find the money needed to have "true tax reform" via a new flatter-rate personal income tax system and repeal of the sales tax on unprepared food at the cash register.

Huntsman confirmed that he's even considering cuts in his recommended $9.6 billion budget to achieve the tax cuts and tax reforms he wants.

"We have lots of things we're working on," he said, waving some charts and notes too quickly for reporters to read.

The new budget numbers are expected to end the current stalemate over tax cuts, one way or another.

The House GOP wants $230 million in tax cuts, including taking the sales tax off food purchases entirely. Senate Republicans say $100 million in cuts is enough, and they want to give only low-income Utahns some type of income tax credit to offset the sales taxes they pay on food. Leaders in both houses favor the so-called "H3" flat-rate income tax proposal — lowering the top state income tax rate from 7 percent to 5 percent — which would give a $60 million tax cut.

The governor only included $60 million in tax cuts in his December budget recommendation. But much has changed since then, he now says. In his State of the State address last month, he called for lawmakers to take the sales tax off food this session, suggesting the $166 million price tag at the state level could be covered by revenue growth.

Now Huntsman is rethinking the assumption that revenue growth will solve all ills, looking for places to trim back his budget to pay for taking the sales tax off food and the revenue dip incurred in the proposed new income tax system.

While Huntsman still backs a "flatter-rate" income tax at 5 percent, lawmakers in both the House and the Senate are looking to take that rate even lower, to 4.9 percent. Their rate reduction isn't cheap at about $60 million, compared to the $23 million that the governor's 5 percent-plan would cost.

Valentine, though, said the Senate may be willing to move on both taking the sales tax off food and the size of the income tax reduction. "I really do believe there's room there," the Senate leader said. "I am hopeful we can negotiate some of these broader issues."

Balance of power?

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., protective of his executive authority, is already threatening to veto two measures being considered by the Legislature:

HB352, which would allow the Legislature to keep in place the current spending plan for a disputed part of the budget until a new one is enacted.

SB70, which would give the Legislature the power to override a gubernatorial veto of nuclear and other hazardous waste-siting permits.

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