Lisa Riley Roche and Bob Bernick Jr.
February 25, 2010

Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday he’s got a set of pens “greased up and ready to go” to veto a cigarette tax increase and other issues being considered by the 2010 Legislature.

The GOP governor told the Deseret News any tax increase would hurt the state’s economic recovery and said he’s concerned lawmakers are cutting the budget too deeply, particularly in public and higher education.

Republican legislative leaders shrugged off Herbert’s warnings.

“It’s just posturing,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. “It’s about time, in fact. This is OK. We kind of expect it.”

House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said there just isn’t enough money to do what the governor wants, especially without tax increases.

“Well, he’s put himself and us in a box if he wants more,” Garn said.

Herbert, though, vowed to “push back” in a number of areas that would be cut by the legislative Republicans’ reductions over his recommended budget for next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Those areas include cutting 29 UHP troopers as well as trimming an additional $3.5 million from the prison budget, which would mean early release of 213 inmates.

There’s no need for Utahns to worry, Herbert said, about the Department of Corrections releasing inmates early, as called for in the budget endorsed by GOP leaders Tuesday.

“I’m confident that won’t happen,” he said. Still, he said state agencies are going to have to “tighten their belts. It’s going to pinch a little.”

But the governor was very clear that he sees no need to cut public and higher education.

GOP lawmakers would take an additional $60 million from colleges and universities, and are threatening to reduce public education funds.

Herbert said lawmakers should be looking at dipping deeper into the Rainy Day Fund and postponing some road projects to plug the holes in the budget.

They should take another $50 million from the fund, he said, which would still leave the balance at more than $200 million. Plus, he said, there’s a list of some $113 million in road projects that can wait until the state is in better financial shape.

Garn said using more one-time money out of the Rainy Day Fund is not something lawmakers are willing to do. And roads have long been a top priority of Republicans in the Legislature.

The governor insisted his plan will work. “We absolutely can get through this, protecting education, maintaining basic levels of service in government and do it all without raising taxes and having a balanced budget,” he said.

GOP lawmakers are looking more closely at raising the tax on a pack of cigarettes to raise some $24 million, but Herbert said he’d likely stop that.

“I’m very reluctant to use the ‘v-word’ at any time. But certainly that, the veto, certainly is on the table. It’s an option,” Herbert said. “I’ve got a couple of pens already out there, greased up and ready to go.”

Senate Minority Leader Pat Jones, D-Holladay, said the threat of a veto from the governor “will throw cold water” on the tobacco tax increase despite support from the public.

Herbert also said he would consider vetoing SB109, a bill that would give the governor the power to appoint the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court.

“It has the perception that somehow we will interject politics into the selection of the chief justice,” the governor said in an interview. “I just think there’s no reason.”

Jenkins, the sponsor of that bill, already has said he won’t pursue it. Herbert chuckled when asked if he put a stop to the legislation.

“You want me to tell you all my secrets? I think they knew I was not too inclined to support that bill,” the governor said.

Jenkins, though, said Herbert never talked to him about the bill. “I was going to hold it anyway,” the Senate majority leader said. “He’s a big powerful guy, and I don’t want to get in trouble with him.”

The governor also said he’ll make a decision by Friday whether to veto yet another bill, SB11. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, says Utah alone will decide regulations on guns produced and used solely in the state.

Herbert said it’s not a gun bill but an interstate commerce issue that may be unconstitutional and could cost the state plenty to defend.

“I’m getting mixed messages as far as the cost, whether it could be done pro-bono, whether the attorney general could absorb it in his existing budget,” the governor said.

But he met later Wednesday with Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and was planning to talk with other attorneys before deciding what to do. Herbert said he wants “some assurances at least that there’s not going to be some kind of extraordinary fiscal cost to this bill.”

Jenkins said he believed the Senate could override a veto by the governor on SB11. “He’s a little concerned about it? That’s just too bad. We passed it,” he said. “Now he’s got to make his decision.”

Finding the two-thirds majority required for a veto override on a tobacco tax increase would be harder, Jenkins acknowledged. The GOP Senate caucus has yet to support or reject the measure.

Herbert just returned from Washington, D.C., where he was able delay and stop shipments of depleted uranium to Utah and resolve the issue of new national monuments in the state.

“If I could be as productive every time I go to Washington, I need to spend more time there,” he said with a smile. “And if our congressional delegation could be as productive as I was this past week, I think that would be a step in the right direction.”