Some Republican state legislators may well be looking at GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. this election year and wondering: With friends like this, who needs enemies?

Huntsman, who does not face re-election until 2008, has pushed the GOP legislative majority into several political corners this year — and has done it again in today's special session.

Despite repeated requests from GOP leaders that he not include in the session's call an allocation for dental coverage for blind and disabled Utahns, Huntsman did just that.

And while some conservatives grumble that they will vote against the $2 million "emergency" expenditure, GOP lawmakers could look like downright meanies if they deny the dental coverage when the state anticipates a surplus between $150 million and $250 million this fiscal year.

To not vote for the funds would be a "let them eat cake" action, says Todd Taylor, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.

"Apparently, Marie Antoinette and (Utah House Speaker) Greg Curtis don't care about poor, disabled people's teeth," Taylor said.

Huntsman declined to put any political spin on his $2 million request.

"For the governor it is not about politics," said Mike Mower, Huntsman's spokesman. "It is about emergency dental care for the blind, disabled and aged. We have the funds to do it, but ultimately it is the Legislature's call, and Gov. Huntsman respects that."

Mower said later that with the help of Sen. Pete Kunudson, R-Brigham City, Senate chairman of the Human Services budget subcommittee, the $2 million will be allocated from among current department budgets, and $2 million in new money won't be needed.

But that still leaves some political problems.

Curtis, R-Sandy, says that by separating the $2 million for dental care for the needy out of the regular Medicare budget approved by the 2006 Legislature, Huntsman sets up "a very tough (political) vote" for GOP lawmakers seeking re-election this year.

The disabled in Utah "have a very strong, effective and vocal" lobby at the Legislature, a lobby that outside of partisan politics may make noise this fall, Curtis said. In fact, an auto-dialing recording asking Utahns to call their legislator and support the $2 million dental expenditure started Tuesday.

In addition, Huntsman also put on the legislative agenda pay raises for top executives, including himself, and $15 million for an additional parking garage at the Capitol Hill Complex.

To vote in favor of those expenditures and then vote against dental care for the most needy among us "does look bad" politically, Curtis said.

But, the speaker added, there are very valid arguments against opening the 2006 budget and dealing with just one item — dental care for the disabled. Six weeks of intensive study led the Human Services budget subcommittee to allocate its funds in areas other than dental care during the general session, Curtis noted.

However, in all the noise of a political season, it's unlikely the general public will be able to separate valid budgeting issues, Curtis acknowledged.

Will Democratic legislative candidates use the votes against the $2 million allocation today to pound GOP legislators come November's election?

That depends on each candidate's race, Taylor said. "But I would certainly encourage them to take advantage of it, and several other votes that the Republicans have made."

"I'm pleasantly surprised that (Huntsman) put this on the (legislative) call," said House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake. Democrats pushed for the dental coverage throughout the 2006 session and beyond, he added.

"There may be some political benefit to Democrats if the Republican legislators won't put the available money to this purpose," Becker said. "But the politics really are secondary. It is unconscionable and inhumane for a state with our capacity to fail to take care of those most in need in our society."

Curtis puts forward this political reality for Huntsman: "Can I get what I want by putting the responsible parties in a political box" in a special session?

"OK, I won. I got my $2 million. But where does that take you the next general session?"


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com