Budget grows as state shakes off recession
After a run of long, lean years, Utah legislators kicked their crash diet, approving about $440 million in new spending for education, health care, law enforcement and roads.
"We passed a balanced budget, which Congress is incapable of doing," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. "We haven't raised taxes, we haven't further indebted the state by increased bonding."
Utah's public education system is in line to receive more than $110 million for the coming year, covering all of the 12,500 new students entering schools, plus money for various software programs, computer-aided testing and new language-immersion programs at 23 schools.
Lawmakers also provided in their budget enough money to help districts cover increased retirement and health care costs for teachers.
"I think we did very well by public education," said House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City. "We also need to recognize that we have a ways to go. We can't pretend we adequately fund public ed or even higher ed. That's not something that's going to be solved in one year."
State workers will receive a 1 percent raise, which was one of Gov. Gary Herbert's top priorities. It is the first raise in years for public employees, who will also see their retirement and health costs covered.
The Utah Highway Patrol would get 13 new troopers and another seven would be reassigned to patrols from running vehicle inspections, a sharp increase in the number of troopers, which has remained almost flat for three decades.
Lawmakers approved funding for a sort of halfway house for former inmates who violate their parole, allocated funds to incarcerate state inmates in county jails, and found money to save the state's juvenile work camps from closure.
Medicaid, which covers low-income Utahns, will devour a large portion of the budget, with more than $87 million more committed to the program to cover the spike in the number of Utahns relying on the program.
"These big programs eat that money up just like that, and it's really hard to spread it around when they're out there pulling at you," said Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City.
Disabled services, which have suffered during the economic downturn, would also get new funding, with funds dedicated to mental health services and to shrink the list of disabled Utahns awaiting assistance.
Meals on Wheels, which provides home delivery of food for elderly and disabled Utahns, also is in line for a boost.
The total state debt will drop about $130 million under the plan. Still, the state has about $1,200 in debt for every Utahn.
As is also often the case during good budget years, lawmakers steered bits of funding to various pet projects in their respective districts, items like the Taylorsville Dayzz Symphony, a trail project in Sugar House, the Shakespeare Festival, the Hill Air Force Base Air Show, Hole In The Rock Museum and Moab Music Festival, among others, all were to receive taxpayer funds.