Utah gov seeks money for education, prisons, air quality
Utah spending • No tax increases, more funding for schools and air-quality initiatives.
Published: December 4, 2013 04:55PM
Updated: December 4, 2013 08:47PM
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Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Governor Gary Herbert, while reflected in a video monitor at right, releases his fiscal year 2014 budget recommendations at Utah Valley University, Wednesday December 4, 2013.

Orem • Gov. Gary Herbert presented his annual budget blueprint Wednesday, asking legislators to boost public education spending by about $100 more per pupil, expand the state prison in Gunnison, give more state support to colleges and provide a small raise to state employees.

Herbert is also recommending putting state money into air quality, seeking $1.8 million for research, $1.3 million in grants to help small businesses reduce emissions, and $14 million to convert aging school buses to alternative fuels.

“I think [this budget] finds the right balance points for those needs and services we need to get from government without overburdening the private sector,” Herbert said. “The one thing we don’t want to do is kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

The governor’s budget request is the first step in crafting a $13.3 billion state budget for the coming year. Legislators will do the detailed work of putting together the final spending plan, which may look far different.

Overall, the budget is about $338 million higher than lawmakers approved last year — including $132 million that can be used for one-time purchases, such as buildings or vehicles.

Almost all of the money is earmarked under Utah’s Constitution for public and higher education. The governor touted $261 million of his request going to public and higher education.

The governor’s proposal would pay to educate the 10,300 additional students anticipated in Utah’s public schools next year, at a cost of $64 million. On top of that, Herbert is seeking $61.6 million to boost Utah’s last-in-the-nation per pupil spending by 2.5 percent.

“This is the largest increase in the [per-pupil spending] since 2008,” Herbert said.

That $61.6 million spread across the 623,000 students in the school system translates to an increase of just under $100 per pupil.

Mark Mickelsen, executive director of the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers association, said Herbert’s recommendations are appreciated and a good first step, but more is needed.

When Social Security, retirement and inflation are factored in, the 2.5 percent increase merely treads water. Teachers would like to see a much larger 4 percent per pupil increase, plus additional money for Social Security and retirement and to restore professional development funds lost during the recession. All told, that would cost about $158 million, Mickelsen said.

“Our state is better than the status quo,” said Mickelsen. “We can do more, we need to do more and, if we do that, as all of us have said for years and years, that’s an investment in the Utah economy.”

Likewise, Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said the state is merely moving closer to its pre-recession level of education funding.

“We’ll never grow ourselves out of the deficit in public education or what we need in public education,” Davis said. “To get where we need to go, it’s going to take some growth in the budget, as well. It can’t just be a natural growth.”

Davis said there needs to be a discussion of eliminating tax breaks for large families, a “user fee,” as Davis puts it, requiring those who use the schools to pay more. Or, he said, the state may just need to raise the income tax.

Herbert cautioned that an income tax hike could crash the fragile economic recovery.

“Could we use more money? Sure. But the question is how do you get it? And again, we’re still in a very tepid economic recovery,” Herbert said.

Herbert also recommended $7.5 million for early childhood education. Districts would have flexibility in how to use that money, but he said he hopes they would use it to expand full-day kindergarten.

Herbert presented his budget at Utah Valley University, highlighting the growth the institution has seen in recent years — now boasting the state’s largest enrollment.

The governor is proposing $19.3 million to help UVU and other universities around the state that have seen large spikes in enrollment — specifically Salt Lake Community College, Dixie State University, Weber State University and Utah State University’s regional campuses.

He is also seeking $3.4 million for post-secondary scholarships, a $57.4 million science building at Weber State, and $3.9 million to increase the enrollment capacity at the state’s applied technology centers.

Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Buhler said the proposal addresses the system’s three top concerns. There may still be tuition increases necessary in the spring, but he said he hopes they will be “minimal.”

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the governor’s budget proposal “is a good start for the Legislature.”

“He’s obviously got some of the same priorities we have and have always had in terms of public education,” she said. “We’ll look very seriously at what his proposals are. I think you’ll see we will focus on public education.”

Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser said he felt good about the governor’s budget proposal, as well.

“He seems to align with us on no new taxes and we like the idea of no bonding for roads or buildings,” said Niederhauser.

The state needs more prison capacity for a system that is growing by about 144 inmates per year, so Herbert is asking for $36 million to expand the Gunnison prison. “It’s the least expensive way to build additional bed space,” said Herbert, who is also looking for $6.1 million to house inmates in county jails.

He also is proposing $3.5 million to plan for the possible relocation of the Draper prison — an idea that is still being studied by a state board. Herbert said he is glad the board decided to take its time — “It felt like it was going too quick to me. I’d rather do it right than do it quick” — but he wanted the money available if the board made a decision.

Herbert said he wants lawmakers to allocate an additional $15.7 million for travel and tourism promotion outside the state. Herbert said the tourism dollars the state has spent have a six-to-one return on the investment.

“We’ve seen the benefits this past year of our increased efforts on tourism and travel,” Herbert said, adding that he is making the recommendation “knowing that’s one of the few places you can put taxpayer dollars and actually get more money back.”

He is seeking $700,000 to recruit businesses outside the state to relocate or expand in Utah, citing the example of Boeing as the type of company the state could try to lure.

On air quality matters, Herbert said the research dollars are intended to “find truth” and clear up misconceptions that the federal Environmental Protection Agency might have about Utah’s pollution problem.

“I think there are in fact some issues that will come out of EPA … that probably don’t square with the science,” Herbert said. “Rather than just complain, what can we do to help? What can we do to be proactive? That takes research and science.”

The state Medicaid program, which provides medical care to Utah’s poor, is expecting to see a jump in costs as the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, directs more people into the program. About 24,000 new enrollees are expected this year — a number lower than originally expected — and another 16,000 are expected to be added to the program next year.

The budget did not include any recommendation for whether or not the state should expand Medicaid — as allowed under Obamacare — to cover an additional 123,000 low-income Utahns. The federal government would cover the costs of the expansion in the initial years. Herbert says he will take his time in making a decision.

“We will not be rushed into this,” he said. “We will do not only what’s [prudent] for the people of Utah in the short term, but we’re also looking long term.”

He said he expects there will be some plan for how to deal with Medicaid released before the legislative session starts in January.

Democrats criticized Herbert for not making Medicaid expansion part of his budget, saying a decision is overdue.

“For the last 18 months, he has dithered,” said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis. “Other states — many of them with Republican governors — have decided that the health and well-being of their citizens are more important than meeting the political demands of the far right.”

Herbert is not proposing any new taxes in his budget and is not recommending any new debt. The state has already borrowed heavily in recent years, largely to pay for the reconstruction of Interstate 15 in Utah County, and the governor’s staff has argued it’s time to pay off some of that debt.

State employees will see a small pay raise — 1 percent across-the-board plus an additional quarter-percent to address hot spots, those areas where state workers are significantly below market wages.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke