Utah lawmakers gag, but accept fed education funds
Kicking and screaming all the way, state lawmakers reluctantly agreed Wednesday to accept $101 million in federal assistance aimed at helping Utah schools avoid teacher layoffs.
"I don't think we should be continuing to accept this crack cocaine that the federal government keeps peddling to the states," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. "There has to be a time where we say enough is enough. We will not put up with it anymore."
The federal money was part of a $10 billion aid package to the states, but Congress structured the law so that even if legislators voted to refuse the money, the U.S. Department of Education could send it directly to the state's school districts.
"This bill is wrapped in a very, very pretty package â¦ [but] this bill, under the pretty package, has a sinister intent," said Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, during a four-and-a-half hour special legislative session. "What this bill actually does, if you pass it, it consummates a takeover by the federal government of the legislative process."
At one point, Buttars ripped pages from a copy of the Utah Constitution, saying a vote for the measure is a vote to shred the Legislature's constitutional responsibilities.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who decided in August to apply for the federal funding, supported the Legislature's decision to accept the money.
"Governor Herbert's top priority is education, and this funding will directly benefit more than half a million students in Utah's 41 school districts," said the governor's spokeswoman, Angie Welling. "While he understands the concerns expressed today by many lawmakers, he applauds the Legislature's decision not to place ideology over the state's schoolchildren."
The Legislature's final votes to take the money were lopsided, passing by more than a 3-to-1 ratio in both the House and Senate.
But even the resolution accepting the funds scolded the federal government for usurping state sovereignty, and lawmakers promised more federal fights lie ahead.
"We, as a Legislature, cannot repeal the [education] bill," said House Speaker-elect Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. "They did that to us, and now we have to deal with the consequences. â¦ But we are going to look for ways we can fight back appropriate, effective ways that we can fight back against the federal government's encroachment on the sovereignty of the state."
Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, said the bill was "a pretty dirty trick" played by Congress.
"Right now, we have to deal with mopping up Congress' shameful act," he said. "Sometimes, you've got to hold your nose and do the responsible thing and get on with the business of the people."
Legislative leaders and the governor have agreed to use about half the money to make up for a shortfall created by lower-than-anticipated tax collections.
If legislators were able to reject the money, schools would be forced to cut $50 million from their budgets in the middle of the school year.
"Because the federal government has taken a step that is so egregious, I came here prepared today to say, 'No, I will not support the resolution,' " said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem. "But as I looked at the specter of what not supporting the resolution would mean to the schoolkids of this state, I could not do that."
Democrats argued that the grousing about Congress obscured the real issue: that Utah's schools, already last in the nation in per-pupil spending, need the help.
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, a teachers union official, said educators have been asking him when the federal money would come because their class sizes had grown by three more students and they couldn't provide all the help the children needed.
"We've lost teacher workdays, school days, professional-development days â¦ salary reductions and, in many cases, we've had the unfortunate experience of increasing class sizes," said Senate Minority Leader Pat Jones, R-Holladay. "These funds will help to retain existing employees and avoid further layoffs in some districts."
The State Office of Education is working on a letter to send to districts within the next few days outlining how to get the money, said Todd Hauber, state associate superintendent. Districts could see it by late December.
Patti Harrington of the Utah School Boards Association and the Utah School Superintendents Association said she is "relieved for the sake of teachers and students" that legislators OK'd the cash.
"It makes a big difference, in particular, because it's going right to the classroom," Harrington said.
Martell Menlove, deputy state superintendent, said lawmakers made the best decision for education.
"I understand the concerns they have," Menlove said. "I think we share those concerns, but I am grateful they see the importance of this to education."
Rosemary Winters contributed to this report.
What districts will do
The Jordan School District isn't planning to use the money to rehire any of the 193 employees laid off this year, figuring it was unwise to use the one-time infusion from the federal government to hire permanent employees. Instead, it will give employees scheduled raises.
Districts such as Davis, Millard and Box Elder will use the money to restore school days cut from the calendar to save money. Others, such as Alpine, Uintah and Wasatch, plan to hire teachers to one-year contracts.
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