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Legislature schedules pre-session meetings, accepts public input on Utah budget shortfall

Staff reporter

Following a decade of revenue surpluses, the Utah Legislature faces the challenge of turning a projected $200 million shortfall into a balanced budget.

"This year's budget process will be significantly different," indicated Utah Senate executive appropriations chair Leonard Blackham of Moroni. "Because we don't want budget adjustments to harm Utahns' physical or economic well-being, we are asking for even greater participation from state agency directors, interested parties and the public."

Blackham stressed the importance of informed individuals participating in the budget process and pointed out areas where savings are possible.

Senate president Al Mansell of Sandy said the Legislature doesn't want to reduce agency budgets to the point where public safety is compromised or educator effectiveness is jeopardized.

However, when 87 percent of Utah's tax revenues are committed to four areas - education, health and human services, law enforcement and transportation - and the state is anticipating receiving $200 million less in tax revenues, difficult decisions will have to be nude.

To make the necessary budget adjustments, Blackham said legislators will gather six days during the next two weeks in pre-session meetings to review budget concerns and discuss legislative issues. The general session starts Jan. 21.

All 104 members of the Legislature have been divided into nine appropriation subcommittees and an executive appropriations committee that will meet during the pre-session to examine how taxpayer dollars are spent. The appropriation subcommittees will meet Jan. 8 to review Gov. Mike Leavitt's budget recommendations, receive public and agency comment as well as recommendations from the legislative fiscal analyst's office on proposed budget adjustments for fiscal year 2002.

"Legislators want to fully understand the economic impact of proposed budget adjustments from the governor and legislative fiscal analyst's office," said Blackham. "Our hope is that state agencies, interested parties and the public will work closely with these appropriation subcommittees to effectuate reasonable adjustments, resulting in a balanced budget, without dramatically impacting Utahns' lives."

The subcommittees will meet Jan. 15-17 to finalize recommendations for the executive appropriations committee on the 2002 financial guidelines and begin fiscal year 2003 budget discussions.

Comprised of legislative leaders from the two major political parties, the executive committee will meet Jan. 16 to receive subcommittee reports. The executive committee will meet Jan. 17 to take final action on Utah's fiscal year 2002 budget.

Recently released budget shortfalls for other states include Arizona at $1.5 billion, Minnesota at $2 billion, Virginia at $1 billion, Washington at $1.2 billion and Wisconsin at $1.3 billion.

"Utah still has projected new revenue growth," said Blackham. "However, it is just not as large as revenue projections prior to the national economic slowdown and 9/11 attacks."

According to the officials, legislative leaders have agreed with several of Leavitt's budget recommendations. But questions surfaced regarding the proposal to use the rainy day fund, Interstate 15 savings and cash from the capital budget.

"The Legislature, just like a family cutting back during tough times, will first look to reduce costs before dipping into its savings or other funding sources," concluded Mansell.

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