Legislators go into final weekend with budget mostly done
By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Mar 08 2013 07:36PM
Nothing is final at the Legislature until the gavel drops on Thursday night, but Utah’s $13 billion-plus budget for the coming year is largely complete, with tax hikes highly unlikely, no borrowing to build roads or buildings and smiles from the education community.
Legislative leadership tied up some remaining loose ends Friday, shuffling money around to cover a handful of odds and ends.
About $2.9 million was allocated to continue a tax break for alternative fuel vehicles; a total of $2 million was spent to clean up a massive data breach at the Health Department and try to ensure another doesn’t happen in the future; Utah State University got $3 million to make room for more graduate students; lawmakers committed another $1 million to the fight to control public lands; $500,000 was set aside for disabled Utahns on a waiting list to receive state aid; and $147,000 was shifted to an overwhelmed domestic violence shelter in Ogden.
Democrats tried unsuccessfully Friday evening to strip out $300,000 designated to pay for a lobby effort in Washington, D.C., to get wolves off the Endangered Species List and also to fund grants to clinics that provide medical care to poor around the state.
Both attempts failed on party-line votes.
Ultimately, however, lawmakers said one only needed to follow the money to find their top priority: education.
"We are thrilled," said Martell Menlove, state superintendent of public schools.
Legislators paid to cover the 13,500 new students entering classrooms next fall and provided a 2 percent increase in per pupil spending — which for years has been the lowest in the nation.
Arts programs, teacher supplies, extended-day kindergarten, language immersion programs and new testing technology added another $24 million.
"The bulk of the money went to education — public and higher education — and mandated social services," said Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan. "We really did not have a lot of flexibility."
Legislators had $264 million in continuing funds, plus another $161 million one-time windfall to spend in the coming year.
Analysts had forecast a larger increase leading up to the legislative session, but budget uncertainty in Washington and automatic spending cuts enacted in the so-called sequester eroded that funding.
It also has left an estimated $39 million in potholes in the state budget, many of which have not been identified yet and none of which were filled by legislators in this budget.
The bullish early estimates created "a bit of a feeding frenzy," said House budget chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville.
"It’s very hard for us as an appropriations committee that has to put the budget together to keep everybody happy," he said. "Obviously we can’t do it. We try to distribute the money the best we can so everyone gets something."
Higher education received $18 million for mission-based funding, the University of Utah got spots for 20 new medical students in the coming year and 40 the following year, and Utah Valley University received funds for a $54 million classroom building.
But there was no pay raise for college and university staff — unlike other state employees — and items requested to try to meet Gov. Gary Herbert’s goal of getting 66 percent of Utahns to have a post-high school degree by 2020 went unfunded.
Staff will work to write the budget bill over the weekend so it will be ready for passage next week. The Legislature adjourns Thursday at midnight.