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Bob Bernick Jr.: Kennedy was favorite target of Utah conservatives

As Utahns from the right and the left praise the long legislative service of Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy upon his death this week, I wonder who will be the new bugaboo for Utah's political right.

I recall that many Utah Republicans, even Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Kennedy friend, used to use Kennedy's political philosophy as a punching bag — and cry wolf often: "We must send strong conservatives from Utah back to Washington to fight Ted Kennedy."

Without a strong Utah Republican in the Senate, Kennedy and his minions would run wild, forcing all kinds of socialistic rule upon the masses, and so on.

Many Democratic Senate candidates from here would see and/or hear anti-Kennedy campaign ads, even if the local Democrats had never met Kennedy and didn't support much, if any, of his social agenda.

Turn the local Democratic candidate into a Kennedy supporter and the opposing Republican would squash the Democrat in the general election. This was a major GOP strategy in Utah for decades.

I suppose that President Barack Obama will now play that big-government role, if he hasn't already eclipsed the late senator in the hearts of Utah conservatives.

Americans have been fascinated with the Kennedys for 50 years — and have watched their tragedies and triumphs unfold in the media.

Like so many older Utahns, I remember where I was and how I heard that President John Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Coming home from grade school that day, I saw my mother crying for the first time in my memory.

The Kennedys gave this country great hope in times we needed it.

And whether you agreed with their politics or not, it is certain they molded this country, as well.

Now on to other political news:

Gov. Gary Herbert is in a tough place on possible tax hikes for next year.

Unless Utah's economy quickly and greatly improves, legislators will face a $700 million gap between the current budget's spending plan and tax revenues for the 2010-11 budget, which starts July 1.

GOP legislative leaders are talking about several possible tax hikes.

Senators especially like raising the tobacco tax, with Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, saying it is a "done deal" in his body come January's general session.

But Herbert is running for election in 2010 on a fiscal conservative platform. It would not look good to the GOP state delegates in convention next May if Herbert suggested any kind of tax hike his first year in office.

So, says his spokeswoman Angie Welling, Herbert's budget recommendation, released in early December, will not contain any tax hikes.

It will be up to Republicans in the Legislature to send Herbert a balanced budget for his signature. And if that budget contains any "revenue enhancements," then it must appear that Herbert is backed into a corner and must sign it.

Of course, Republicans could make deeper cuts in state programs and not have any tax hikes.

But as one GOP leader told me recently, it makes little sense to lay off hundreds of public school teachers for one or two years — only to hire them back after Utah's economy rebounds from the recession. After all, there aren't going to be any fewer kids in school over the next two years.

Utah's economy was strong before the recession, and there's no reason not to think that it will be strong again in a few years.

Utah has no real aging manufacturing base that is in trouble — like Michigan's auto industry.

For the most part, we haven't seen crazy growth, like Las Vegas has, which could take years to catch up with.

The federal stimulus package got Utah state government through the current fiscal year — with $400 million in federal cash being "backfilled" into needy state agencies and construction projects.

But that money won't be there in 2010-11.

Do legislators make deep cuts in programs now only to restore much of that cash over the next few years?

Or do they tap the state's $419 million Rainy Day Fund, make some more cuts and then raise some taxes to get us over the tax-deficit gorge now?

Herbert clearly won't walk over that tax-hike bridge first. Considering his 2010 election, he'll have to be pushed across by legislators.

Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com.