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Utah Legislature: State budget cuts spare public education

SALT LAKE CITY — Legislative Republicans, with Democrats mostly agreeing, have cut $70.2 million from the current state budget to balance out the spending plan by July 1.

To make up for an estimated $194 million shortfall, they also agreed to take $86.5 million from the state's Rainy Day Fund.

In the process, House GOP leaders said Tuesday, Gov. Gary Herbert prevailed to keep public education nearly unharmed in the latest round of budget reductions for fiscal 2010, which ends June 30.

Public education "was cut by something like 0.1 percent," said House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, "in actuality really nothing at all."

GOP leaders had been looking for something like a 2 percent reduction in public education.

But Herbert, who faces an election this year, has made it clear for some time that he didn't want Utah schools trimmed again, especially because most of the money in public education had already been committed.

The cuts finalized by GOP House and Senate caucuses and confirmed by the Executive Appropriations Committee on Tuesday evening are final, unless new tax revenue estimates due next week show "a substantial" downturn in tax revenues before the current budget year ends June 30, said House Budget Chairman Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley.

Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, also noted a negative revenue report could undo the current fixes.

"We'll wait for the figure," Hillyard said. "Then we'll have another arm wrestle" with the governor's office. "This is a very, very difficult budget."

Herbert spokeswoman Angie Welling said after the committee decision that the collaboration between the governor's office and Legislature kept the downsizing process as painless as possible.

"The Governor's Office of Planning and Budget worked with the Legislature and members of the Executive Appropriations Committee to arrive at the adjustments for fiscal year 2010," Welling said, adding the office also worked closely with Cabinet leaders to ensure the reductions would not hurt critical operations and state programs.

She said the governor applauds the committee's decision not to impose additional cuts on public education this year.

Herbert asked for 3 percent agency budget cuts last fall, and a year ago the 2009 Legislature "backfilled" state department budgets with various one-time monies, warning state executive bosses that one-time money would not be coming again and that they should begin to trim spending.

Some state budget numbers in balancing the current fiscal year:

A $194 million shortfall between tax revenues and what was originally authorized for spending.

$137 million made up in one-time funding sources, including the $86.5 million from the state's Rainy Day fund.

$69.9 million saved in further cuts to state budgets over the next five months.

The cutbacks in current budgets were not easy, Bigelow told the 53-member House Republican caucus.

"But you ain't seen nothin' yet," he warned. The cuts lawmakers will now have to make in their budget committees for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, will be more difficult. That budget must be adopted before lawmakers adjourn March 11.

Certainly not all state programs were treated equally in this round of reductions.

For example, while public education's cut was considerably less than 1 percent ($1.3 million), the cut in the state's colleges and universities was around 2.5 percent, or more than $20 million.

The cut in the relatively small natural resources and parks budgets was around 5 percent, or $2.5 million.

Besides keeping nearly all of the public education spending for this year, Herbert also demanded that overtime pay for highway patrol troopers be kept.

"There is another player" in how the Legislature adopts the state spending plan, acknowledged Bigelow.

But GOP leaders say they will stand firm on one budget matter: the state will not bond for $25 million in the current budget, nor bond for $75 million in next year's budget for roads.

Herbert wanted to take $100 million of one-time funds that are now going into road projects and spend that in ongoing state budgets to ease the shortfalls this year and next.

"We will not bond," said House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, adding that lawmakers are worried about a $400-million-plus "structural imbalance" in the 2010-11 budget that's coming through using one-time sources, like the Rainy Day Fund, for ongoing state programs.

If tax revenues don't jump back quickly next year and in fiscal 2012, more programs will have to be cut or taxes raised, lawmakers say.

Current year budget cuts

Capital facilities/government operations $5.9 million

Commerce/Workforce Services $4.3 million

Economic development $2.8 million

Executive offices/criminal justice $14.2 million

Health and Human Services $17.4 million

Higher education $20.9 million

Legislature $348,900

Natural Resources $2.5 million

Public education $1.3 million

UDOT/DEQ/National Guard $575,600

Total$70.2 million

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche