Utah public weighs in on budget cuts it wants

Utah public weighs in on budget cuts it wants

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Eliminating free meals for lawmakers, cutting administrative pay in the prison system and eliminating the public utilities commission as an independent agency are among the suggestions Utah residents have submitted to a newly created commission designed to ferret out waste in government.

Gov. Gary Herbert created the Utah Advisory Commission to Optimize State Government last month to find ways to make government more efficient at a time when the state is facing as much as an $850 million budget shortfall.

The commission's meetings are held behind closed doors, but Herbert's office says the commission still welcomes public comment through an e-mail address -- optimize(at)utah.gov.

In the past month, about a dozen e-mails have been submitted. Copies of the e-mails and transcriptions of voice mails left at the governor's office with suggestions for the commission were provided to The Associated Press in accordance with open records laws.

State officials have ruled that the commission itself is not a public body under Utah law because it wasn't created by the state constitution, state law or a resolution and is not required to open its meetings in accordance with the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act.

Some of the e-mails simply thanked Herbert for creating the commission, while another requested an "Average John Q Public" be put on the commission.

The commission is primarily comprised of business leaders and Republican politicians, including former Gov. Norm Bangerter.

One writer, whose name was not provided by the governor's office, took issue with state lawmakers receiving a food and hotel stipend. Many lawmakers take the stipend even though they stay at their own homes, and lobbyists often pick up the tab for their meals.

"The members of the House and Senate receive food allowance that obviously always goes directly into their pockets," the e-mail said. "Cut it!"

State lawmakers give themselves $54 to spend on meals every day they're called to work at the Capitol, including weekends during their annual 45-day session in which they stay home. They are also allowed to claim the per diem during special sessions and other scheduled meetings.

A writer from Gunnison, home to the state prison, wrote in a letter to Herbert that he's witnessed too much wasted money there.

"They are definitely overloaded with high priced personnel," the letter said. "You have an opportunity to whip this state into fiscal responsibility and restore some of our liberties which have been stripped away from us. I trust you to do this."

Other suggestions submitted to the commission include eliminating personal use of state vehicles, using open source computer software instead of licensed software that needs expensive licensed updates and using property taxes to pay more for education than income taxes.

Herbert spokeswoman Angie Welling said Herbert and the commission welcomes additional ideas on how to make the state run more efficiently.

"Everywhere he goes, when the issue comes up he's been directing people to that e-mail address, saying 'If you have an idea, please send it,' " Welling said.

Welling said state employees who may not feel comfortable submitting ideas to their managers are also encouraged to use the e-mail address.


(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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Brock Vergakis Writer


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