Legislative leaders took their first shot at building next year's budget, presenting a proposal that would avoid tax hikes and spare public education any cuts, but would force serious choices in other areas.
For example, it would require the early release of more than 200 prison inmates, eliminate 29 Highway Patrol troopers, cut off prenatal care for 5,600 low-income mothers, chop domestic violence services and reduce funding for the victims of child abuse.
But the stark choices may force a hard look at various tax increases that would be needed to avert some of the more unpalatable cuts.
"If you want to not take some of these cuts, we have to do what? We have to find money," said House Budget Chairman Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City, who acknowledged there may be resistance to some of the cuts from the Governor's Office and that there will likely be changes.
While the skeleton budget spares public education from the reductions, it does not provide any additional funding for the net increase of 11,000 students who will be in classrooms next year.
As a result, Utah's already last-in-the-nation per-pupil spending would drop by another $90 -- a per-pupil reduction of about 3 percent.
The House Republican caucus embraced the proposed budget framework by a near-unanimous vote Tuesday. The Senate Republicans did not take a position.
"This is why I believe Utah is the best-run state in America," said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "I was absolutely convinced that we were going to have to fight and fight hard against a tax increase this year. ... We have here a budget that I think is responsible" and does not raise taxes.
But there were clearly areas of concern in the proposed budget cuts.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said that, under the budget scenario approved, the prison system would have to release 215 inmates by August, then would have to release 11 more every month. "We'd just get the next guy on the list and let him go," he said.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, complained that the budget would provide nothing to counties that lock up state prison inmates in their jails.
"I understand we're in a tight situation, but this is not like cutting a budget or program. These are prisoners, where if you cut them, they've got to go somewhere," Noel said.
"This is actually a bill that we owe," Noel argued. "We're just shifting the bill of the state prisoners to the counties."
House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, said the blueprint is "a good start," but there are areas in human services, health and public safety that have to be addressed.
There are several "revenue enhancements" that could be called on to avoid the toughest choices.
Chief among them is a proposal to raise the tobacco tax by more than $1 per pack, generating $23 million.
Gov. Gary Herbert has proposed requiring companies to pay their taxes quarterly, rather than annually, which would free up about $125 million this year. The governor also wants to eliminate a rebate to companies that file their taxes online, which costs the state about $20 million a year, and he has proposed issuing bonds rather than paying for certain construction projects with cash.
Budget crunch time
House Republicans on Tuesday endorsed a blueprint for the next budget year that would make ends meet without a tax increase or education cuts. But it would require some big sacrifices:
» early release of 214 prison inmates
» eliminating 29 Utah Highway Patrol trooper positions
» cutting off prenatal care for 5,600 low-income mothers
» reduction of domestic violence services and child-abuse victim funding
Senate Republicans have not settled on a budget framework yet.