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Utah gov seeks money for education, prisons, air quality
Utah spending » No tax increases, more funding for schools and air-quality initiatives.
First Published Dec 04 2013 11:33 am • Last Updated Dec 04 2013 08:47 pm

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.

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"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.

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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.

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