Utah GOP Picks Transportation as Top Issue

Sat February 05, 2005 - West Edition

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) The controlling Republican party has chosen transportation issues to benefit from the state’s budget surplus.

“This is going to be a transportation year,” Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace said.

The party’s lead budget architect, Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City, cautioned lawmakers to scrutinize every spending proposal not related to road construction.

Senate President John Valentine said education and tax reform join transportation as the Legislature’s top issues this session.

“We have a strong feeling about putting a significant amount into transportation,” he said.

Gov. Jon Huntsman has recommended spending $33 million from an expected $358-million surplus.

“Even the governor believes there is a need,” Bigelow said. “The question is how far do we go to addressing those needs this year.”

The Utah Education Association worries the favor being courted on transportation issues may squeeze teachers and students.

“I do believe that the push for transportation dollars will be the biggest obstacle for other programs to get full funding,” said Pat Rusk, president of the Utah Education Association.

Utah has the lowest per-student spending on kindergarten to grade 12 education among the 50 states. The state also is facing an increase of more than 100,000 students over the next decade.

House Republicans said they would create a new fact sheet showing the reasons transportation tops their priority list.

Those in charge of the state’s transit and road projects said the entire surplus would not cover half their needs. Transportation officials said $7 billion in the next decade is needed to keep Utahns moving smoothly.

Legislators raided the Centennial Highway Fund repeatedly during recent deficit years, slowing down the debt payments for the Interstate 15 remodel in Salt Lake County.

And lawmakers said they can’t afford to hold off on new construction projects.

The state should be helped by millions of dollars in federal help, and there’s a number of bills being considered in the Legislature this year that would help the state raise money.

Rep. Rebecca Lockhart, R-Provo, is sponsoring legislation that would create the Transportation Investment Fund.

A plan to streamline the sales tax also may result in a bump in transportation funding. A proposal to help buy land for later road projects also includes new revenue.

But lawmakers are not ready to increase taxes to pay for the new roads and light-rail lines.

“I would be surprised to see a gas-tax increase when we have a lot of surplus,” said Bigelow, co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee.