Legislative leaders want to cut $162 million from the base budget, but lawmakers aren’t taking the request seriously

In no uncertain terms, rank-and-file GOP House members were told by their leaders Tuesday they had better take seriously the $162 million suggested cuts to the state’s “base budget,” or the money-saving process will just be scrapped.

In an open caucus Tuesday afternoon, four leaders told their 62 members that the Legislative Fiscal Analyst Office’s work is important.

The LFA is taking a lot of heat from various state agencies and their program supporters over the suggested cuts, now being debated in the Legislature’s various budget subcommittees.

You can see a budget summary and the proposed cuts to the base budgets here. Scroll down until you hit the “base budget considerations,” and all those below that headline are the suggested cuts that individual budget subcommittees are now considering.

Some of the proposed cuts are controversial and have strong supporters inside and outside of the Legislature.

Like cutting $1 million from the popular Baby Watch program.

Until last year, GOP leaders asked the various subcommittees to “cut” 2 percent from the current year’s base budgets – a chore that fell in part on the House and Senate co-chairs to come up with those proposed cuts.

So those elected folks “cut” the budgets, only to see the Executive Appropriations Committee restore about all of them later in the session.

It was politically unpopular work – and the chairs, UtahPolicy.com is told, were getting heat from agencies and special interest groups.

Since that 2 percent process wasn’t resulting in any serious budget cuts – in theory, made to save taxpayers money on outdated or no longer needed programs – leaders decided to have their own budget staff, politically neutral experts in the programs/budgets, come up some “cut” ideas.

That’s the $162 million list linked to above — $33 million in one-time revenue surpluses, and $128 million in ongoing tax-funded programs.

But, it appears in the early days of the 2018 Legislature, some budget subcommittees are not taking those suggested cuts seriously, leaders said.

(Utah is unique among the state legislatures, all 104 lawmakers here sit on a budget subcommittee. Most other states have small, special appropriation committees who set the budget.)

“Our (LFA) is scrubbing those budgets and seeing legitimate cuts,” said newly-appointed House budget vice chair Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.

The proposed cuts, based on merit, are real, he said. But added that “politically” the GOP lawmakers – who control the budget process – may not want to make some of those cuts when the final budget is set in early March.

Leaders expect “a good, vigorous debate” on the cuts assigned to individual subcommittees, said Schultz. “Take these suggestions seriously.”

“Our staff is taking a lot of arrows,” he added.

House and Senate leaders have already taken some of the LFA’s suggested cuts off the table, knowing lawmakers would never approve of them and not wanting to set some special interests hair on fire.

For example, said Schultz, $135 million in class size reduction – an original LFA suggested cut – was not sent to the Education Budget Committee – no way that popular program (which has questionable results) would be cut.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, who is retiring at the end of this year, said lawmakers may not ultimately want to spend the political capital to make some of the suggested tough cuts.

“But we are going to have some uncomfortable conversations” inside the budget subcommittees, said Hughes, because it’s lawmakers job to look for taxpayer-funded savings.

“This process won’t last unless we do our part on these (LFA) recommendations,” said Hughes.