GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. may be wondering if the majority party of the state Legislature really are Republicans like himself. They seem to always be looking for ways to corral his authority.
Thursday, Utah House Republicans voted unanimously to earmark more than $150 million in sales-tax money for roads — effectively taking that cash off the table for other state programs the governor may want to fund in the future.
There are 56 House Republicans, and it was unclear if all of them were in the caucus room at the time of the voice vote. But if 50 were there, that is two-thirds of the 75-member House, a veto-proof majority.
Earlier this week, Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, introduced a bill with more than 50 co-sponsors that could, under certain circumstances, strip Huntsman of budget-setting authority.
"I want to make it clear that the governor has not agreed" to the new earmarking of sales-tax money for roads, House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, told his caucus before the unanimous vote. Curtis said he discussed the new earmarking with Huntsman this week, and the governor was open to considering it.
Historically, Utah's GOP governors have opposed spending a lot of available cash on roads, preferring to bond for such long-term construction projects.
Mike Mower, deputy chief of staff to Huntsman, said Thursday night that Huntsman believes the transportation budget he suggested last month is adequate and meets current needs.
But "all elected officials should consider longer-term transportation solutions" — as the House GOP plan does — said Mower.
No one argues that Utah has huge transportation needs. The Utah Department of Transportation says more than $16.5 billion is needed in road reconstruction over the next 25 years — like rebuilding I-80 from State Street to Parley's Canyon — and new road building — like widening U.S. 6 in Spanish Fork Canyon and constructing the Mountain View Corridor.
For nearly a decade, legislative Republicans have been arguing with Govs. Mike Leavitt, Olene Walker and Huntsman over just how much sales tax should come out of the state's General Fund and go into the separate Transportation Fund.
Considering that they are all Republicans, the political battles have at times been vigorous and vicious — with the governor, Democrats and a few moderate Republicans arguing that pumping money into roads lessens what can be spent on human needs — like Human Services, corrections and other non-education funding.
Curtis said that Senate GOP leaders agree with the House's transportation funding plan.
"The governor has not committed" his support, said Curtis. "I'll have to use my charm on him."
It may take more than that.
The plan unveiled in the GOP caucus would take the lion's share of state sales tax that comes from "auto-related purchases" — like new cars, used cars, auto parts and tires — and statutorily earmark it for roads. The Utah Tax Commission says 17 percent of sales tax going into the General Fund is tied some way to spending on cars.
To not jam up the 2007 fiscal budget of around $9.6 billion lawmakers will adopt before they adjourn March 1, the formula will be set to transfer $159 million from the General Fund to the Transportation Fund, the same amount of sales-tax revenue allocated by the 2005 Legislature to road.
By earmarking the funds, the governor would not be able to allocate the auto-related sales tax to general state programs.
And that is exactly what the conservative Republicans want. Not only will needed roads be built, but siphoning off $150 million or $200 million a year out of the General Fund will slow the growth of state government programs.