Utah Legislature accepts $101 million in federal 'funny money' for education

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers approved a resolution accepting $101 million in federal stimulus funds for schools after hours of sometimes colorful debate during Wednesday's special legislative session.

Republicans in both the House and the Senate complained bitterly about the federal government usurping their constitutional authority over the state budget.

"What this bill does is if you pass it is consummate the federal takeover of the legislative process," Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said. "This bill is about taking us out of the picture."

Buttars unsuccessfully attempted to substitute the resolution to reject the money, warning the "pretty package has a sinister intent." He even ripped up a copy of the Constitution in an attempt to make his point.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, also argued for turning down the funds, part of a $10 billion bill passed by Congress this summer to help keep teachers employed in the troubled economic climate.

"I don't think we should accept this crack cocaine the federal government keeps peddling to the states," Stephenson said. "Enough is enough."

The rhetoric was not quite as dramatic earlier in the afternoon in the House, but the frustration with Washington came across loud and clear.

"This is not real money. This is funny money. This is Monopoly money. This is money that's being printed up," Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said. "In essence, we're stealing from our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren."

Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, and others said voters nationwide want an end to freewheeling federal spending. "We need to say no," Sandstrom said. "To say we don't like it but we'll accept it, to me sends a message that it's business as usual."

But in the end, Republicans in both the House and the Senate decided to "hold their noses" and vote for the resolution, as Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, and others advised.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who already had applied for the federal funds, was pleased the resolution passed, his spokeswoman, Angie Welling, said.

"Gov. Herbert's top priority is education, and this funding will directly benefit more than half a million students in Utah's 41 school districts," Welling said. "While he understands the concerns expressed today by many lawmakers, he applauds the Legislature's decision not to place ideology over the state's schoolchildren."

Sponsored by Speaker-elect Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, and Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, the resolution slams the federal government for usurping the role of the states on budget decisions.

And the resolution states that if lawmakers didn't take the funds, the U.S. Department of Education will give the money directly to Utah school districts "in a violation of the classic principles of federalism."

Legislative leaders have already said the money will help the state make up a $50 million shortfall in school funding in the budget year that ended June 30.

The Senate vote was 22-6 for the resolution, and the House vote was 57-14.

The vote came after long, closed-door caucuses among the GOP in both the House and the Senate. And the floor debate along took longer than expected. Instead of adjourning after 1½ hours at 2:30 p.m., the special session went until about 5 p.m.

Lockhart and other members of the new House leadership team promised members they were already planning a bigger battle for states' rights.

Lockhart, the House sponsor of the resolution, said it sends "a very significant and, I think, important message to the federal government that we are tired of this and we are going to look for ways to fight back."

Neither Lockhart nor House Majority Leader-elect Brad Dee, R-Ogden, offered any specifics about what battle they're planning to fight next session. But Dee said the new leaders will pick one they can win.

Valentine echoed the same sentiment.

The Democratic minority in both the House and the Senate tried to soften the language in the resolution but had no luck.

Rep. Jay Seegmiller, D-Sandy, spoke in favor of making the resolution less harsh. "Taking this money and then turning around and kicking the federal government in the shins is not being civil," Seegmiller said. "I think it's bad form."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com.

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