With Lockhart ed-tech plan out, lawmakers make budget deal
House Speaker Becky Lockhart said she pulled the plug on her proposed $200 million initiative to put digital learning devices in the hands of every Utah school student when it became evident the Senate was unwilling to offer more than the "change out of the couch cushions."
Lockhart said during negotiations last week she made repeated offers, each smaller than the last, but the Senate Republican leaders were unwilling to give ground on her top policy objective.
"It finally became apparent that the House was trying to make history. The Senate was trying to make a deal," Lockhart said Monday. "We were unwilling to take the deal that they presented. So we chose to back away from the initiative."
Lockhart said the Republican senators also came with other demands, including raising property taxes or the gasoline tax and taking several hundred million in federal funds to extend Medicaid coverage to 111,000 low-income Utahns proposals the House will not bend on and will not consider this session.
"What they were offering in the end, really, was change out of the couch cushions," Lockhart told reporters. "I've long said there's only one thing worse than not doing [her education technology initiative], that's doing it wrong, and doing it with not enough to do it right. It became very apparent they were unwilling to invest the kind of money that was needed to do it properly. So we'll be back another day."
Gov. Gary Herbert, who had threatened to veto Lockhart's education effort if funding exceeded $30 million, said in a statement he remains a supporter of technology education, but implementation must be measured.
"We must make progress in this effort in a strategic manner, with consideration for competing funding priorities," Herbert said. "This should not be viewed as an all-or-nothing issue."
$13.5 billion spending plan • Legislative leaders met Monday afternoon and gave preliminary approval to the details of the budget, which will approach $13.5 billion.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the Senate only heard details of Lockhart's proposal last week, and senators, while supportive of digital learning generally, had numerous unanswered questions about the speaker's proposal and weren't comfortable putting more than $26 million into the program.
After going back and forth on the program late last week, the speaker decided Saturday to abandon her proposal, Niederhauser said.
"It highlights the problem in bringing out such a big initiative during the session," Niederhauser said.
With the education technology issue resolved, Niederhauser said, Republican leaders were able to wrap up the budget.
Lawmakers are proposing spending $62 million to educate 10,300 new students expected to enroll in Utah schools next year and another $62 million to increase Utah's per pupil spending by 2.5 percent.
Much of the $26 million that had been set aside for Lockhart's education push was rolled into a total of $50 million to balance the state's funding to educate students at the state-run colleges and universities. Utah Valley University is the big winner in that money, receiving about $21 million of the funds.
"The ones who made out like bandits this year was higher ed," said House budget chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville, noting colleges and universities received millions, not just for equity funding, but tens of millions for buildings, as well.
"If this holds, we're very happy," said Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Buhler.
The Science, Technology, Engineering and Math or STEM Initiative received an additional $20 million.
Gay-marriage ban • The state is setting aside $500,000 to defend Amendment 3, Utah's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which was struck down by a federal judge in December. The state's appeal is currently pending in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and is likely to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said that provides enough to get the appeal through the 10th Circuit. More will be needed if the case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Legislature also will appropriate the $4 million the House has spent investigating former Attorney General John Swallow. The House Special Investigative Committee, which was authorized in July, is scheduled to meet Tuesday to finalize the 4,000-page report of its findings, which should be made public Wednesday.
Hillyard said the attorneys hired to conduct the investigation were expensive, but "were also very good." He said they found information the FBI had overlooked and, if they prompted Swallow to resign without an impeachment proceeding, may have saved the state money.
Funding for several air-quality programs went up in smoke, with funding to convert the aging fleet of school buses to cleaner burning natural gas disappearing and money to convert homes with wood-burning stoves to natural-gas furnaces reduced from the $1.5 million envisioned to $500,000.
There is, however, $1 million to provide incentives for the purchase of electric cars, $1.4 million for air-quality research, and $400,000 to hire new employees in the state's Division of Air Quality.
All told, more than $3 million was set aside for various air-quality programs.
"I think we're making very good progress on air quality," said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, who is coordinating several clean-air bills this session.
The state prison system will receive about $36 million to expand the Gunnison prison to keep pace with inmate population growth and more than $4 million to pay county jails to house state inmates. A proposal to relocate the Utah state prison from its current location on 700 acres in Draper will receive $3.5 million as the relocation commission studies where to build the new prison.
Democrats expressed concerns at some of the reductions to air-quality programs they pushed for this session and other programs they considered to be a top priority.
"The one that ticks me off the most in looking at our priority areas is the rape-kit processing backlog," said House Minority Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City. Funding to expedite the processing of rape kits was cut from $750,000 to $400,000 in the budget deal.
State workers will receive a 1.25 percent pay increase, less than Hillyard said he wanted, but they will also have increases in retirement and health premiums covered.