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No surprises expected from guv's proposed budget

The State Capital building.
The State Capital building.
Stuart Johnson/Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert already has announced what's likely to be the biggest news about his proposed state budget, scheduled to be released Monday.

Late last month, Herbert said the state expects to end the current budget year with a $128 million surplus and can anticipate $280 million in revenue growth in the new budget year that begins July 1, 2012.

Despite having additional money to spend for the first time since the 2008 economic crash, nobody expects to see any costly new initiatives in the governor's proposed budget. Nor is there much chance he'll recommend any tax increases or fee hikes.

"I don't think they'll be any major surprises," said Ron Bigelow, the governor's budget director. "The governor often makes the statement that expects government to do more with the same money."

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said because 2012 is an election year for the GOP governor, the budget likely will focus on basics such as education and economic development.

"I would guess … you wouldn't see anything very new or innovative. I think going into this election, you would see a return to some standbys," Burbank said. "I would doubt the governor is going to promote any big ideas or big spending."

Any boost in revenue in the new budget appears to be all but spent already, to cover the increased costs of providing Medicaid care, educating additional public school students and other pressing expenses.

Lawmakers already have their own list of spending musts that analysts warn may well exceed $500 million, depending on how they deal with increased expenses in a wide range of areas, including worker benefits, prisons, state parks and services for the disabled.

And leaders of the GOP-dominated Legislature have made paying off the so-called $52 million "structural imbalance" a priority, a shortfall that resulted from using one-time monies to plug ongoing budget gaps.

It's not clear if Herbert also will recommend wiping out the entire structural imbalance in his proposed budget. Bigelow said only that the governor generally agrees with legislative priorities.

There appears to be a new sense of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches over the budget process, after a somewhat rocky relationship, especially last year.

Herbert called the 2011 Legislature's decision to initially chop 10 percent from the budget before deciding what could be added back "draconian" as well as convoluted and confusing to the public.

That's not going to happen again this year. Lawmakers are expected to start the 2012 Legislature by adopting base budgets largely based on last year's spending, then look at what they can do with the new revenues.

"I think you're going to see it working smoother than it has before," said Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. "Mainly, it's going to be plugging the holes the best we can and rewarding those agencies that have done well" in finding their own efficiencies.

Next year, the majority of lawmakers are also up for re-election, Burbank noted, so it makes sense for them to try to avoid riling voters.

"It's not as if this is not without some consequence, and I think this is the message many legislators have heard, that this is really an egregious process," he said.

House Minority Leader Dave Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, welcomed the change in the process.

"Many of us, Democrats and Republicans, were concerned," Litvack said of the previously mandated initial cuts. "It created a lot of panic and concern."

But Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said the past two years of slicing budgets at the start of the process paid off in forcing government agencies to be more efficient.

"Government was growing faster than the rest of the economy before," Waddoups said. "It's always easier to spend money without making those hard decisions. I didn't feel it was contentious. I just felt it was good government."

The Senate leader said he expects the governor and lawmakers to work well together on the budget in the coming session.

"People can feel good that we are growing now," Waddoups said. "In the end, I think it'll be a good budget and we'll sing 'Kumbayah.'"

Bigelow said he is looking forward to "what I would classify as a quiet budget year. That means there won't be a lot of money, but there won't be a lot of heartache, either."

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