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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.

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Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Buhler said the proposal addresses the system’s three top concerns. There may still be tuition increases necessary in the spring, but he said he hopes they will be "minimal."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the governor’s budget proposal "is a good start for the Legislature."

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"He’s obviously got some of the same priorities we have and have always had in terms of public education," she said. "We’ll look very seriously at what his proposals are. I think you’ll see we will focus on public education."

Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser said he felt good about the governor’s budget proposal, as well.

"He seems to align with us on no new taxes and we like the idea of no bonding for roads or buildings," said Niederhauser.

The state needs more prison capacity for a system that is growing by about 144 inmates per year, so Herbert is asking for $36 million to expand the Gunnison prison. "It’s the least expensive way to build additional bed space," said Herbert, who is also looking for $6.1 million to house inmates in county jails.

He also is proposing $3.5 million to plan for the possible relocation of the Draper prison — an idea that is still being studied by a state board. Herbert said he is glad the board decided to take its time — "It felt like it was going too quick to me. I’d rather do it right than do it quick" — but he wanted the money available if the board made a decision.

Herbert said he wants lawmakers to allocate an additional $15.7 million for travel and tourism promotion outside the state. Herbert said the tourism dollars the state has spent have a six-to-one return on the investment.

"We’ve seen the benefits this past year of our increased efforts on tourism and travel," Herbert said, adding that he is making the recommendation "knowing that’s one of the few places you can put taxpayer dollars and actually get more money back."

He is seeking $700,000 to recruit businesses outside the state to relocate or expand in Utah, citing the example of Boeing as the type of company the state could try to lure.

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On air quality matters, Herbert said the research dollars are intended to "find truth" and clear up misconceptions that the federal Environmental Protection Agency might have about Utah’s pollution problem.

"I think there are in fact some issues that will come out of EPA … that probably don’t square with the science," Herbert said. "Rather than just complain, what can we do to help? What can we do to be proactive? That takes research and science."

The state Medicaid program, which provides medical care to Utah’s poor, is expecting to see a jump in costs as the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, directs more people into the program. About 24,000 new enrollees are expected this year — a number lower than originally expected — and another 16,000 are expected to be added to the program next year.

The budget did not include any recommendation for whether or not the state should expand Medicaid — as allowed under Obamacare — to cover an additional 123,000 low-income Utahns. The federal government would cover the costs of the expansion in the initial years. Herbert says he will take his time in making a decision.

"We will not be rushed into this," he said. "We will do not only what’s [prudent] for the people of Utah in the short term, but we’re also looking long term."

He said he expects there will be some plan for how to deal with Medicaid released before the legislative session starts in January.

Democrats criticized Herbert for not making Medicaid expansion part of his budget, saying a decision is overdue.

"For the last 18 months, he has dithered," said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis. "Other states — many of them with Republican governors — have decided that the health and well-being of their citizens are more important than meeting the political demands of the far right."

Herbert is not proposing any new taxes in his budget and is not recommending any new debt. The state has already borrowed heavily in recent years, largely to pay for the reconstruction of Interstate 15 in Utah County, and the governor’s staff has argued it’s time to pay off some of that debt.

State employees will see a small pay raise — 1 percent across-the-board plus an additional quarter-percent to address hot spots, those areas where state workers are significantly below market wages.


Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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