Utah Senate expected to address budget issues
|Mike Dmitrich speaks from the Utah Senate floor during last year's legislative session. The 2004 Utah Legislature will meet in an office building behind the Capitol, due to renovations in the main Salt Lake City building.|
With the state's economy starting to turn around and cuts from many programs in the last few years, the 2004 Utah Legislature will face major budget decisions.
Senator Mike Dmitrich feels that some of the issues that emanate from the Utah Senate could set the tone for the legislative body as a whole. Dmitich represents District 29 which encompasses Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan and part of Utah County.
"I think our number one issue will be what to do with the surplus that is now being generated in state revenues by the improved economy," said Dmitrich on Monday in a telephone interview. "One of our main priorities will be to replenish the state's rainy day fund since in the past few years we had reduced that pot to only about $8 million."
The rainy day fund is surplus money that the Legislature had built up to carry the state through rough years. In 2001, the fund contained more than $100 million.
Dmitrich predicted that the bulk of the new money generated in Utah will probably go into the fund.
"That fund is what has kept our bonding rating AAA," said the senator. "Because of that, we are one of the few states that have been able to maintain that kind of rating."
Some of the extra revenues will be available for other programs, pointed out Dmitrich.
"In believe the next priority will be the funding of higher and public education," stated the senator.
Gov. Olene Walker's budget reflects increases in educational funding. But during his campaign, governor-elect John Huntsman seemed to favor putting more money into the economic development engine. Huntsman said higher funding for education can only happen when the economy provides the money to drive it.
Despite the gubernatorial candidate's election campaign stand, Dmitrich thinks Huntsman will go along with increases.
"I think he will buy into a lot of what is planned for education," said Dmitrich. "And his proposal for a pilot tuition tax credit will also be under consideration."
Huntsman has proposed a pilot program using tax tuition credits for some disadvantaged students in a limited way. Dmitrich thinks this move, as it is formed, will affect the state very little, but should it's success prove transferable, it could affect moves that will take place later concerning the entire education system.
"I just question assertions that such a program will save the state money," says Dmitrich.
Another concern, one which he says is paramount particularly to Carbon County and other rural areas is the Centennial Highway Fund.
"That definitely needs to be addressed and the money needs to come out of the general fund," he states. "The only other way to fund it is to increase gas taxes and I don't see that happening in this legislature."
He points out that without that money more improvements to Highway 6 could halt.
"UDOT has done some real improvements between Price and Spanish Fork over the past number of years," he states. "I recently measured and 32 of the 64 miles between the exit from I-15 and Castleview Hospital are three or four lane now. But beyond Wellington and on to Green River a lot more work has to be done."
Another area Dmitrich is extremely concerned about is in the vast governmetal sphere of human services. Over the past few years these programs have suffered greatly due to a lagging economy.
"We need to put more money into these areas particularly in Medicaid where we get a three for one return from the federal government on the money we spend," says the senator. "We just haven't been maximizing the money we could be getting there."
One of the particular human services programs Dmitrich is very concerned with is meals on wheels, a program that helps isolated seniors and disabled citizens.
"It's just a disaster when people who should be served by this program are left out," he states.
There are also some non-funding issues that need addressing as well. One of those is what the state is going to do about solid and hazardous waste disposal.
"There is a need there and I am not sure there is a way to stop it from coming in," said Dmitrich. He says he is studying this issue and knows it will become more and more important in the future.
Another concern of his is legislation to clarify how utilities can bid out the construction of power plants. While those that commission power plants to be built are in the private sector, the public service commission regulates what they do and there has been a move toward making utilities bid these projects out to the general construction industry, forcing companies to use contractors they are not comfortable with.
"There are basically three issues involved in this situation," says Dmitrich. "First of all a utility may not get the contractor they feel comfortable with when constructing a plant in Utah, so there is a chance they may not build it here. Second, if bidding is opened up we may see lots of 200 megawatt plants springing up all over the state and most of those may not use coal. Finally, we really need to set priorities so that Utah workers are chosen when possible in these projects."
Dmitrich says in the end what is most important is that costs for plants, upgrades and service must be fairly passed along to the regular, average consumers of the power provider.
Finally Dmitrich discussed the changes in how the legislature will be meeting this year, because of the construction to the capitol. The meetings of both bodies will take place in the West Office Building on the Capitol grounds that just opened this past summer.
"There will be little room for visitors during the sessions there," he said. "But we still want input from the people in our districts about how they feel concerning issues that are important to them."