Legislative session may end with bad news for education

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SALT LAKE CITY -- In one week, the Utah Legislature will adjourn for the year. The session may end with bad news for state programs like education.

The reason: not enough money to go around.

The powerful executive appropriations committee was schedule to meet Thursday evening, armed with a 'cut list.' Earlier in the day, lawmakers from both the House and the Senate worked behind the scenes to come to an agreement on where to cut.

The decisions are excruciating for lawmakers, but it looks like cuts are coming. That being the case, the talk about a tobacco tax is looking more attractive to lawmakers who have been against it in the past.

Behind the scenes, the budget-cutting question now is: Which cuts will hurt the least?

Facing a shortfall that's about $50 million larger than expected, choices are limited and often unattractive.

Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City, said, "Will some people lose their jobs? Unfortunately the answer is ‘Yes.' We're trying to minimize that as much as possible. Will some services be cut? Yes."

By Friday night, the details will be set. But even now, those details are "like Jell-O," according to one public education official.

The uncertainty is making people in public and higher education nervous. For one thing, Senate leaders have been talking about a $21 million cut to public education. The thinking there: such a large program has to share in the cuts this year.

"You just can't escape with the revenue drops without looking at public ed," said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

Lawmakers are already factoring in $100 million from the education emergency fund. Plus, more than half of the rainy day fund is in play, which is about $218 million.

With this dreary budget perspective, the tobacco tax -- with its $44 million budget boost -- is looking more attractive at the Capitol.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who has tried to pass the tax four years in a row, is finding a much more receptive audience this year.

"I have people who you would never have thought would be an advocate for the tobacco tax coming over, saying' We'll help you this year,' ‘What can we do for you?'" Ray said. "It's because of the money; $44 million when you're in a deficit like this is a lot of money." There is pressure to use all the rainy day fund this year.

But lawmakers are worried that next year, if the budget is still tight, there won't be any savings to help out then.

E-mail: rpiatt@ksl.com

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