Also on their shopping list: Tents, security equipment and $1.5 million in state funding.
Weiler directed his request to lawmakers in charge of the state’s higher education funds, as did colleagues seeking money for expanding a state parks mobile app, research on ozone in the Uinta Basin and a study to identify pay disparities among public employees.
But setting aside the worthiness of these causes, lawmakers in charge of divvying up school funds decided they shared one basic flaw — they didn’t have enough to do with higher education.
“A lot of what we do up here is kind of a chess game,” said Rep. Scott Chew, R-Jensen, who pitched his ozone research funding request to a higher education committee in hopes of improving his odds. “You’ve got to know which move to make.”
That means affordable housing, mental health, public safety and air quality will have to compete for the same small pool of available dollars — unless the lawmakers who support these priorities are persuasive in arguing their eligibility for income tax largesse.
Sending it elsewhere
Rep. Mike McKell, co-chairman of the higher education appropriations committee, said the requests are for worthwhile initiatives, and the lawmakers pushing them showed “creativity” in making their cases. But while those programs were education-adjacent, he said, they did not directly advance the committee’s goals of improving graduation rates and the student experience.
“We’re there to fund higher [education] and provide a return for students. That’s our job and that’s our focus," McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said. “Our message back to leadership is that we’re focused on improving our higher education system. We appreciate all these other requests, but please send them elsewhere.”
But “elsewhere,” during the current budget year, essentially means “nowhere.” Lawmakers have more than $900 million in surplus state funds to spend, but effectively all of that money is walled off behind the state’s constitutional requirement that income tax revenue be spent only on education.
Now that their bills and funding requests are falling by the wayside, lawmakers could be feeling increased pressure to do something about the state’s revenue imbalance, said Rep. Steve Waldrip, who serves as vice chairman of the public education appropriations committee.
“I think that will have an impact over the next year, especially as we continue to discuss how to deal with tax reform,” the Eden Republican said.
On the fence
Determining what should or shouldn’t count as schools-related isn’t an exact science, said Rep. Mike Schultz.
Weiler said the U. saw vice-presidential debate security as an educational expense, but that he can see both sides of the argument on whether it qualifies for income tax revenue. The Woods Cross Republican also acknowledged it may be difficult to secure the requested aid if it is not prioritized for the education fund.
“Our budget is seriously out of balance,” Weiler said, “which is why the Legislature was trying to pass a tax reform bill.”
Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, requested roughly $6 million out of the education fund to assist the construction of the Millcreek Arts Center, which will house various educational programs.
“It’s a great project, something that I think benefits children — all children,” Iwamoto said. “It would fit in so nicely in Millcreek and there’s a real need for it and a great opportunity. But we’ve never funded a building through education.”
Rep. Steve Eliason said a couple of these bids for construction funding have passed through the public school appropriations committee where he serves as co-chairman. Ultimately, the panel decided not to break from their general policy against paying for buildings, which he said are typically funded at a local level.
Another aid request by a group serving a nonschool-age demographic never even made it onto the committee agenda, he said, after he informed them that taking the money would make them answerable to the state school board.
“They had a very stark look on their face and said they wouldn’t want to do that,” Eliason, R-Sandy, said.
Enough for education?
“The education community is unified in saying that’s where we must start,” Matthews said. “Beyond funding the WPU, it’s critical legislators don’t make decisions now that will in any way jeopardize future education funding, like diverting ongoing money constitutionally intended for education to other uses.”