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GOP senators back building $$

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Paying cash for state buildings — not giving tax cuts — should be how most of this year's massive budget surplus is used, Republican senators decided Thursday.

The majority party members of the Senate voted in their closed-door caucus to spend about $243 million on buildings, nearly 1 1/2-times as much as the $100 million they've said taxes should be cut.

Their priorities are the reverse of their House counterparts. House Republicans want the most money — $230 million — to go toward tax cuts, and just $132 million to pay for state building projects.

"We saw this from a Senate perspective as a time to make significant investments across the board," said Senate Majority Leader Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City. "We see this as a wonderful opportunity — these are not pie-in-the-sky projects."

Knudson said the projects are going to have to be paid for at some point, "so why not when we have a significant amount of one-time money." The budget surplus adds up to almost half of the $1 billion in extra revenue that lawmakers have to spend.

Neither the Senate nor the House have agreed on exactly which projects should be funded, although both have reviewed the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management board's priority list.

At the top of the list is $50 million toward the ongoing restoration of the state Capitol Building. Other highly ranked projects on the board's list include construction at Utah Valley State College and the state prison at Gunnison.

Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, co-chairman of the Capital Facilities and Administrative Services appropriations subcommittee, said even the Senate's proposal would only pay for just over half the 23 items on the state's list.

Both the House and the Senate Republicans agree that the state should be paying for new buildings with cash rather than bonding to cover the costs. The only exception appears to be $200 million in new buildings at the University of Utah and Utah State University.

Those buildings are part of the Utah Science, Technology and Research Economic Development Initiative better known as USTAR that has widespread support as a means to bring high-paying jobs to the state.

The Senate and House haven't come up with details, either, of how taxes should be cut. The Senate wants to give poorer Utahns an income tax credit to make up for what they spend on sales taxes on food purchases, while the House wants to eliminate sales tax on food.

That's what Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. wants to do, too, even though he included just $60 million in tax cuts in his $9.6 billion budget, far short of the $166 million price tag for removing the sales tax on food.

The governor is counting on finding the extra revenue needed when new revenue estimates are made on Feb. 13. If the revenue forecast is rosy enough, Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, has said his caucus could back the governor's plan.

And having even more money would make it easier, too, for the House to beef up the amount they're willing to spend on buildings. Huntsman called for nearly $176 million in building projects, mostly from the surplus.

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com