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Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. will call the Legislature into special session next week to try to plug a $200 million hole in the state budget - a result of the national economic downturn that also has hit Utah.
Lawmakers from both parties and both chambers supported the session, saying they want to take action now before their options become too limited.
"We're going to decide, the hole that is being dug, how deep is it and how do we rectify it," said House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara. "The earlier we get through this process the better off we think we are managing the budget."
Huntsman is looking at a 2 percent across-the-board cut, although he promises to protect education. Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said senators want to go up to 3 percent, but are willing to hold education harmless, at least this year.
Last year, legislators stashed away $100 million for public schools that could be used to help avoid trimming education budgets.
But if the economy doesn't turn around, next year could pose serious challenges, and Clark, an executive at Zions Bank, said he has deep anxiety about the economic future.
He said the downturn is so severe and affecting such fundamental staples of the economy, that it could take years for it to turn around.
"I don't have a crystal ball. I'm not any smarter than anybody else, but I would say, based on what I'm seeing in our economy . . . I think most folks are kind of bunkering down. I don't anticipate we're going to see a growth period through this year," he said.
Lawmakers were faced with budget shortfalls was 2001, but instead of acting quickly, waited until the general session, then had to make more drastic, painful cuts to make ends meet. Legislators also had to hold special sessions in 2002 to deal with several hundred million in shortfalls.
This year, preliminary projections are that the state ended the last fiscal year $83 million short of projections. The Legislature will have to fill that hole and an additional $103 million or more from the current budget to prevent a deficit.
"Our state is in a much better position than most of the surrounding states," said the governor's spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley. "We're going to look at roads and building projects before we're going to be cutting back human services."
Recognizing the state's economy was slowing, the governor in early August asked his department heads to submit proposals cutting their budgets by 1 percent, 3 percent and 5 percent this year and for next fiscal year.
Some lawmakers were irritated that they could be forced to slash programs just weeks before the Nov. 4 election. "The timing of it sucks," said Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville.
But Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, said the legislators have a constitutional duty to act.
"It's not your fault, it's not my fault. But it's there and for us to ignore it now and hope it will go away and hope we can handle it after an election . . . is hiding our head in the sand," said Dee. "If we are elected by the people of Utah to handle this budget, and we know there's a problem today, then we'd better handle it today."
The state has set aside $414 million in the Rainy Day Fund, but lawmakers were loathe to touch that money, arguing that keeping it in savings helps preserve the state's credit rating, and it couldn't be used to fund ongoing programs.
One option on the table is increasing the amount the state finances through bonds for roads and buildings, and using the cash dedicated for those projects to try to pay for state government programs.
The most likely course of action is budget cuts.
House Minority Leader Brad King, D-Price, said Democrats will want to make sure that the government programs that Utahns rely on are not slashed.
Legislators face budget hole
* Problem: Estimated shortfall of about $200 million in state's $12 billion budget.
* Solution: Spending cuts, borrowing, dipping into savings or combination.
* Plan: The governor is expected to call legislators into a two-day special session of the Legislature next Thursday and Friday.