Budget: Focus was on education, social safety net
With federal fiscal uncertainty casting a cloud over the state budget process, Utah legislators moved cautiously on crafting a $13 billion-plus budget that would pump more into public education than in recent years and dealt with growing demands in human services and law enforcement.
"We didn't raise taxes, we upped education," said Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. "The underlying indicators we look at for the economy are all very good. It's the uncertainty at the national level that has us concerned."
Legislators added 2 percent to Utah's last-in-the-nation per-pupil spending and spent another $47 million to cover the additional 13,500 students who are expected to enroll in Utah's public schools next year.
They also targeted a series of special programs, expanding full-day kindergarten, paying for early reading programs and computer-aided testing.
In higher education, STEM, short for science, technology, education and mathematics, was the buzzword, and lawmakers poured millions of dollars into the new, somewhat nebulous programs.
"In every category of education, I'd say probably 90 percent, I'd say we're getting what we asked for," said Gov. Gary Herbert. "Overall, it's been an A-plus win."
Democrats said they would like to have seen even more spent on education and said the state needs to be willing to bring in new revenue through tax hikes if it is going to be serious about giving students a good education.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said Democrats pushed for a larger increase and proposed ways to raise more revenue to help schools and to give teachers more resources.
"The next step is doing more than just picking up the cost of new kids and one or two percent," he said.
Lawmakers put about $20 million into expanding the children's health insurance program for low-income Utahns, additional coverage for adults on Medicaid, and other changes required by the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The Legislature agreed to add 40 new slots to the University of Utah Medical School over the next two years, build a new classroom building at Utah Valley University and add graduate school spots at Utah State University.
State workers would get a small pay raise, as would public school teachers, but higher education employees would not.