State leaders say 292 state and higher education employees have been laid off because of severe budget shortfalls.

But considering that $1.8 billion was cut from state, higher and public education, transportation and other budgets over the last year or so, the loss of only 300 jobs can be a bit puzzling, legislative leaders said Tuesday afternoon.

And with all the budget pain, how come the state hired 1,500 people last year?

The state's budget/employment picture is complicated and depressing — that was one thing all members of the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee, made up of GOP and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, could agree on.

While the current year's budget (which started July 1) saw on average 8 percent cuts, next year's budget will start at further 9 percent cuts.

Utah won't have more than $1 billion in federal stimulus funds next year, money that buoyed state budgets in the current fiscal year.

"We originally feared there would be about 1,000" state employee layoffs, said fiscal analyst Gary Ricks. In the end, fewer than 300 lost their jobs.

In the budget-cutting process, however, 1,371 positions in state government and higher education were eliminated. Many of those positions came open through retirements and resignations starting last September when then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and the Legislature started putting the screws to state spending.

It is still unclear how many layoffs may come in public education or how many unfilled positions will ultimately be cut.

Each of the state's 41 school districts signs contracts with teachers and other school workers, and those numbers have not been calculated yet.

Senate Minority Leader Pat Jones, D-Holladay, asked if any effort was being made to document how state services were being harmed with all the cuts.

For example, Jones said one of her constituents complained that he had called the Department of Workforce Services 40 times, trying to find out how to apply for unemployment, and no one had answered the phone.

"It is really important for citizens to know what should be their expectations. What kind of reduction in services" should be acceptable, Jones said.

If you thought things in state government were bad now, the 2010 Legislature will have even more difficult decisions to make, legislators were told.

Basically, lawmakers have robbed Peter to pay Paul — while state income tax (which all goes to public and higher education) has dropped 21 percent, legislative leaders were told, the budgets of colleges and public schools were only reduced 10.2 percent.

Thus, as GOP leaders and Huntsman previously promised, other state programs suffered to reduce the budget impacts on schools and colleges.

"I believe that if a budget is cut by more than 5 percent, the (agency's) paradigm must change," said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, co-chairman of the main budget committee.

In other words, many state agencies must find a different way to deliver their services to the public because between 2009 and 2010 their budgets will certainly be cut by more than 5 percent.

"We can't be mired in our old ways," Hillyard said.

Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley, the House budget chairman, said state agencies already know the 9 percent cuts are coming — because those so-called "base budgets" were adopted by the 2009 Legislature.

Taking out "one-time money" from the 2009 budget, much of it from the federal stimulus package Republican legislators love to hate (although it certainly saved their budget bacon this year), leaves a $700 million gap.

Bigelow and John Nixon, Gov. Gary Herbert's budget director, said state agencies will budget to that 9 percent cut level before legislators start what will be painful 2011 budget hearings in January.

And in that session, Herbert and the majority Republicans in the House and Senate will decide where to find more cash — by dipping into the state's $419 million Rainy Day Fund or raising targeted taxes, like those on cigarettes or alcohol.

There is one place where the state isn't cutting back: bonding.

John Njord, head of Utah Department of Transportation, said the state will issue around $1 billion in road bonds this year, much of it spent on three projects: I-15 in Utah County, the Mountain West Corridor in western Salt Lake County, and the "beltway" near St. George.

Funds have already been set aside to service those bonds for fiscal 2010, he said. And the state is getting great, low bids on work because contractors need the work.

e-mail: bbjr@desnews.com