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Senate president pleased with special session

At a press conference Friday evening, Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, bristled at the proposal that the special legislative session was held because it’s an election year.

Preceding the special session, Sen. Valentine and other Republican lawmakers repeatedly said that it was a difficult thing to hold a budget-cutting session right before the elections, but that it was something that had to be done.

Sen. Valentine was all smiles minutes after the session ended at 4:58 p.m. on Friday, but quickly became sober as reporters questioned the governor’s motives for calling the special session. Since the 2009 shortfall was so large and so many reductions will need to be made again in January, reporters questioned the value of making minor budget adjustments for a fiscal year that began in July.

"With it being an election year, it’s one of those things where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t," replied Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

If the head of a household gets a 5 percent cut in salary, that household would have to adjust its budget. The state is the same way, he said.

Sen. Valentine also said his support for the special session comes from experiences he gained in 2002 following economic shortfalls in the wake of Sept. 11.

"The lesson learned is if you wait (to make up for shortfalls), you fall off the cliff," he said.

Sen. Hillyard said the governor could have solved the budget crisis himself, but would have had to do a straight across-the-board 3 percent cut. The session allowed agencies to find the 3 percent themselves within their budgets to minimize harm to state residents.

It was clear Sen. Valentine and Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, were pleased with themselves for what the session did.A written summary of the session’s accomplishments requested by Sen. Valentine touted the fact that no taxes were raised and no money was borrowed in balancing the budget.

All of the funding granted to education was held harmless, a $100 million education reserve was preserved, and the Rainy Day Fund was kept intact.

Sen. Valentine also took credit for policies requested by the governor, such as going forward with pending tax breaks for the self-employed that senate leadership had originally wanted to repeal, and restoring some funding to the departments of health and human services.

Sen. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, agreed the process was bipartisan and said some programs like the Food Bank actually ended up with more money than they started with.

Sen. Valentine also lauded the creativity employed in the process that came up with ideas such as using interest from the Rainy Day Fund to fill in shortfalls a strategy never used before.

In a process where no rock was left unturned in the search for disposable balances, Sen. Valentine was asked why the session ended with a few hundred thousand dollars still on the table.

"We do that to make sure we’re covered if our arithmetic was done wrong somewhere," he said.

That caution and conservative planning was also what inspired efforts to keep the reserves intact.

"This was a good exercise because in January we’ll probably have to cut the budgets even further," said Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City. "Hopefully we’ve settled the floor, but it may still be soft and we may need to fix it again."

In response to that pessimism Sen. Bramble mentioned ways in which the slowing economy is benefiting the state.

Because more contractors are out of work or are working less, they are submitting lower bids on UDOT projects, allowing the department to save money at the same time revenue from fuel taxes are on the decline.

"All states are having trouble, but we’re solving it by working together," said Sen. Brent Goodfellow, D-West Valley City.

Agreeing with that sentiment, Sen. Valentine proudly displayed a front page of a newspaper on which Congress’s failure to agree on a bailout plan was directly above a headline about the Utah legislature’s quick resolution to the budget shortfall.

"This was a real partnership between a number of different players," Sen. Valentine said. "We met all the goals we had set up."

Summary of Final Budget Actions:

-$100 million in ongoing reductions to all agencies equivalent to a 4 percent cut with the following exceptions:

3 percent for Dept. of Human Services (with funding restored to nursing home alternative and local mental health).

3 percent for Dept. of Health (with funding restored for resource tests for pregnant women).

3 percent for Dept. of Corrections (with funding restored for 12 personnel positions)

Public education held harmless with a $100 million reserve still intact.

-$30 million reduction in ongoing building funding.

-$15 million reduction in alterations, repairs and improvements on capital facilities.

-$15 million from interest on Rainy Day Fund.

-$35 million ongoing from transportation projects

-$170 million in one-time funding pulled from various sources to cover the 2008 shortfalls as well as provide a 1 percent backfill for state agencies and projects.


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