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Huntsman says priorities remain same

He'll try again — armed with high approval rating

If Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s current list of legislative priorities sounds familiar, it's because it contains some of the same items lawmakers rejected from him last session.

"I'm going to try again," the governor said Thursday during the taping of his monthly news conference broadcast on KUED Channel 7. "There's no guarantee that I'll succeed. I might fall short again, but I believe it's important and I'll keep trying."

This time, though, Huntsman will be armed with an astoundingly high approval rating of 88 percent, according to the latest Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll by Dan Jones & Associates made public earlier this week.

Those results, combined with an economy that's being described as possibly the strongest ever, "means that we can get to work on some to the things we so desperately need in the state, like funding for education," the governor said.

That means another attempt to win approval from lawmakers for all-day kindergarten in some schools, he said, as well as programs aimed at "bridging any gaps we have with respect to some of our new citizens" who don't speak English.

The strong performance of Utah's economy during the first six months of this year, cited in a report released Wednesday by Wells Fargo, is good news for education because it means more tax revenue should be available to fund public schools, Huntsman said.

The 2007 Legislature, he said, may be able to top the hefty 6 percent increase for schools in the current state budget. Calling getting that level of support a "huge home run," the governor said he hopes "we're able to do the same thing, and then some," come January.

Tax reform, also on Huntsman's list, is already being revisited by lawmakers. The governor brokered a deal for a $70 million cut in individual income taxes that would have flattened tax rates and eliminated most deductions, but it faltered in the final hours of the 2006 Legislature.

And he had to cancel a planned special session to take it up again after millions of dollars in errors were discovered. Now, lawmakers are looking at four proposals that would give taxpayers a choice between staying in the current system or opting for a flat tax rate.

"We're very close on tax reform," the governor said. "These are highly complicated issues that on average take 10 years in most states before they see any kind of tax reform change. We've been at it less than two years. So we can't be too impetuous."

Huntsman said he had "great victories" during the last session, including some $160 million in bonds and one-time money for the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative known as USTAR at the University of Utah and Utah State University.

While the governor said he does not have an exhaustive list yet of everything he wants lawmakers to consider next session, one item likely won't be there — removing the remaining state sales tax on food.

"It is still a goal, and whether it comes sooner or later, time will tell," Huntsman said, suggesting that it will take "probably over the next year or two" to show the partial reduction set to take effect in January won't hurt rural areas of the state.

"I want to make sure that we're comfortable with what we've done so far, and to prove the point that we can do it," he said. Earlier this year, he had called for the rest of the state's share of the hated tax to be removed during the 2007 Legislature.