Lawmakers Convene to Deal With Budget Woes

Lawmakers Convene to Deal With Budget Woes

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Pep talks and hard realities greeted Utah lawmakers on the 2003 Legislature's opening day, with uncertainty looming over how to balance the budget in the face of deficits.

"Rarely has a legislative session begun with the dark clouds of trouble hanging over it as it does this session," House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, told fellow state representatives Monday.

From 1988 until last year, Stephens said, the state has enjoyed revenue surpluses, with several of those years marked by surpluses of more than $500 million.

In what appeared as an attempt to spin the situation positively, Stephens said this year's challenge gives lawmakers a chance to genuinely scrutinize how the state spends its money.

"We have a unique opportunity, to force a dramatic change in the funding of government that would not otherwise be available in years of plenty," he said.

The session runs through March 5, a 45-day space in which the state's 29 senators and 75 representatives must balance the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 -- and do it with projected revenue down $420 million from a year ago.

Surplus accounts are almost empty, which will force lawmakers to make further cuts -- adding to a round of cutting last month -- while trying to find extra money to keep up with the growth in public schools and Medicaid.

This year's House is a relatively youthful one; 49 percent of the representatives have two years or less of experience.

"This is as good as a group of legislators as I have seen in this House since I have been here," Stephens said. "While we may lack in legislative experience, we have skillful people from all walks of life willing to pull together to do the business of the people."

Gov. Mike Leavitt has proposed a $7.45 billion budget plan calling for delaying road projects and tapping into the municipal water fund. The recommendations have not been popular with lawmakers.

Instead, House and Senate leaders want deeper cuts to state agencies. In the past year and a half, 500 jobs have been cut from those agencies, according to Leavitt budget director Lynne Ward.

In December, state lawmakers were forced into a special session to close a $117 million hole in this year's budget. They left it to state departments to decide how best to implement a 4.2 percent nearly across-the-board cut and reduce the deficit by $66 million.

However, about two-thirds of the $66 million in cuts -- $44.6 million -- was temporarily restored with one-time money. That delayed most of the pain until this session as state agencies begin the budget process with 4.2 percent less money.

Public education and Medicaid were spared cuts. The governor has vowed to protect those budget items again in the new fiscal year.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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