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Simply put, the message from the Utah legislative leaders to Gov. Gary Herbert was this: Thanks for the budget. Try again.
Herbert politely declined.
But the exchange of letters between fellow Republicans who work in the same building shows that the governor still doesn't see eye-to-eye with GOP lawmakers when it comes to budget matters.
For years, lawmakers have grumbled that the governors haven't abided by state law when they make their budget proposal. The law requires the governor's budget recommendations to be "based upon the current fiscal year state tax laws and rates."
Herbert has proposed speeding up tax collections for self-employed individuals, requiring the taxes to be paid every three months instead of once a year. The total amount paid in taxes wouldn't change, but Herbert estimates that an additional $130 million would be moved up into the coming budget year.
But that would require a change in tax law and that, according to the letter to the governor from Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, and House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, is an assumption the governor legally cannot make.
House Republicans have already rejected the governor's tax change, arguing businesses would incur $10 million in additional costs to prepare the taxes.
If the tax change isn't approved, the governor's budget would spend $130 more million than the state takes in.
"We respectfully request you submit a revision to your budget recommendations for Fiscal Year 2012 with recommendations for a balanced state budget based on current tax law," Jenkins and Dee wrote in their Dec. 20 letter. "We believe the statute requires this within the first three days of the annual General Session."
That would force Herbert to pare back his request which basically kept state departments level, but provided additional money for public schools and propose something more akin to the 7 percent across-the-board cuts legislators are eyeing.
Herbert declined the offer, saying he didn't propose a tax increase or any change to the tax rates. "As such, the budget I have proposed complies with the [law]," he wrote.
Legislators will begin meeting next week to begin paring back funding for the coming year.
Matthew Burbank, chairman of the political science department at the University of Utah, said it is surprising to see the Legislature "picking this fight with the governor and testing him."
In the past, Herbert sought to avoid clashes with the Legislature, Burbank said, but that could change since he won election in November.
"In some ways this is his first real run at this as a fully elected governor," Burbank said. "Maybe he will be a little less anxious to avoid any conflicts with the Legislature."
The presentation of the governor's budget is almost always followed by complaints from legislators. Gov. Mike Leavitt's budgets were often rolled out in a series of carefully crafted public events that lawmakers resented, Burbank said.
But typically, the legislators just ignore the governor's proposal and do what they want. Asking the governor for a do-over is unheard of.
"This was not a poke at the governor," said Dee. "It was just our staff asking for some clarification."
Dee said he expects the House to stick to its opposition to the governor's tax proposal. If they do, "the [governor's] budget is then $130 million … out of balance."
Jenkins said there was some discussion of a follow-up letter to Herbert, but "I don't want to set a precedent where we're poking each other in the eye."
But Dee said that, since the letters went back and forth, Herbert hired former Rep. Ron Bigelow as his budget chairman and Dee said he thinks the collegiality will make it possible for the Legislature to work through the issues with the governor. Budget letter 1 (pdf)
Budget letter 2 (pdf)
O To see the letters, visit sltrib.com.