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(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Speaker of the House Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, listens to reporter's questions in the House Speaker's office, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014.
With Lockhart ed-tech plan out, lawmakers make budget deal

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Mar 10 2014 04:01 pm • Last Updated Mar 10 2014 09:29 pm

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.

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"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.

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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.

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