Utah budgeting for early primary

Hoping for other Western states to get on board

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) ‹ Gov. Jon Huntsman has put $850,000 in his proposed budget to pay for a Western states primary, even though the money won't be needed for at least another year.

Acting now rather than waiting until the 2007 legislative session should help get other states on board, he said.

"We all need to take it seriously early if we're going to make it happen," the governor said.

So far, only Utah and New Mexico are committed to the concept. Huntsman and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, announced in October that they'd picked Feb. 5, 2008, for the election.

Arizona is also expected to hold an early primary but has yet to sign off on the date. Other states interested in the idea, Huntsman has said, include Montana, Nevada and Idaho. Colorado and Wyoming are less likely candidates.

"We have some willing governors in the region who like the idea. They say they are facing unwilling legislatures," Huntsman said, explaining why it was important to him "to show some of the surrounding states that our Legislature was willing to fund the concept early on."

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said he agrees with the governor that the money should be appropriated in the upcoming session rather than waiting until 2007.

However, Valentine has yet to poll his caucus on whether they're ready to fund the primary.

"I personally believe the governor's right," Valentine said. "We have a significant amount of one-time money in this year's budget. This is a good use."

Plus, the Senate leader said, coming up with the cash now "sends a strong signal to other states that we want to join us that we put our money where our mouth is. If we wait until next year, that doesn't give other states time to debate" whether they want to become part of the regional primary.

It's unclear whether New Mexico's governor will request funding this year for that state's primary election.

Last year, Montana's legislature rejected an attempt to schedule a presidential primary early in the election year. Lawmakers are expected to try again in 2007, the next time Montana lawmakers meet.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer's spokeswoman, Sarah Elliott, said it's not easy justifying the expense of such an election in a state with fewer than a million residents.

The Montana legislator who sponsored the failed bill said the price tag is about $700,000.

Supporters of a Western states primary hope picking an early date will convince voters that their participation matters.

They want to hold elections throughout the region on the same day to attract the attention of major party candidates. Huntsman and others want the candidates to spend money campaigning in states such as Utah, in addition to focusing on Western issues.

The Senate's majority leader, Pete Knudson, R-Brigham City, and minority leader, Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, are introducing the bill.

The House sponsors are Majority Leader Jeff Alexander, R-Provo, and Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake.

The support comes despite Huntsman's acknowledgment that there may only be a "critical mass" of three states actually participating in the primary Utah, New Mexico and, he believes, Arizona.

"I'm not disappointed with three states," Valentine said after the October announcement in New Mexico. "Three states represent a fairly significant voting bloc . . . and now, you're starting to sound like a big state."