Editorial: Budget shouldn't let education down, again
No new taxes. Enough money to pay the costs of educating the expected 10,300 new students (at the bargain-basement per-pupil rate that puts Utah perennially at dead last among the states). An estimated $338 million in new tax revenue, but no promise of a substantial increase in per-pupil education funding.
Seem familiar? That's because it is the usual state budget refrain, with a new chorus about additional revenue, something that wasn't heard during the recession years. Still, even before the economy crashed in 2008, public education was never at the top of Utah's budget priority list.
Saying that education is important is a favorite campaign tune, but when it comes time to vote, the Legislature is quick to commit new revenue to roads or the Rainy Day Fund. Public schools necessarily capture the largest percentage of the state budget, but promises for additional money to boost teacher salaries or help at-risk kids learn to read largely go unkept.
Gov. Gary Herbert has provided few details yet on the budget he will propose to the Legislature, except to say that he would not raise taxes, not even the fuel tax, and will not recommend the state go any further in debt, for highways or anything else.
It has the familiar flavor of a conservative Republican recipe for continuing the status quo. And there is an argument to be made for staying the course. Utah's economy is growing faster than the nation's, and unemployment here is among the lowest in the country. Those are the benefits of a business-friendly government.
Still the Beehive State is not without problems that its leaders should attempt to solve. A shrinking commitment to public education funding is one of those; poverty and increasing food insecurity is another, and the number of uninsured is a third.
Herbert's refusal to incorporate in his budget a full Medicaid expansion, funded, at least initially, by the federal government, is a mistake. If he also fails to funnel some of the expected additional revenue into programs like quality preschool and all-day kindergarten that are proven to improve kids' success, he'll be making another.
Herbert is promoting an initiative to raise the percentage of Utahns with college degrees or certificates to 66 percent by 2020. But that focuses attention at the wrong end of the education pipeline. Investing in early-childhood education would produce more long-lasting results than trying to make up for pre-elementary school failures after high school, when a quarter of Utah kids have already dropped out.