Utah lawmakers get creative with requests for ‘education’ funding

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Lawmakers in the House Chamber vote to repeal the tax package they passed last month during a special session, at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

The organizers of this fall’s vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City say they’ll have to buy unscaleable fencing to create a perimeter for the gathering hosted at the University of Utah.

Also on their shopping list: Tents, security equipment and $1.5 million in state funding.

“I don’t know if you’re excited like I am," Sen. Todd Weiler told his colleagues while making a pitch for the money. “But it’ll be fun to have the focus of the world on Utah.”

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.

In a year when money is abundant in the state’s school funds and scarce elsewhere in government, legislators say they’ve noticed their colleagues stretching the definition of what should count as an education-related expense.

“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.”

Legislative leaders have warned their chambers that the dramatic death of their tax reform package earlier this year would squeeze the state budget in most every category besides education. Sure enough, the most recent budget forecasts call for an ongoing surplus of $518 million in the education fund and less than a fifth of that to spread across the rest of government.

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

This year, the committee that oversees funding for higher education took the atypical step of including a category in its budget recommendations for requests that the committee determined were better suited under other spending categories.

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.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, watches the board as the House reaches the two third majority as the Legislature called itself into special session to attempt to override Gov. Gary Herbert's vetoes of two bills.

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.

The tax overhaul passed in December and repealed in January aimed to rebalance lopsided revenue streams that are producing surpluses in the education fund and shortages in other parts of state government. The Legislature approved the bill in a special session, but not by an initiative-proof majority, opening the door for an underdog citizen campaign that ultimately forced lawmakers to retract the tax package.

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.

“There is a lot of things that are on the fence. Is this education, or is it not education?” said the Hooper Republican, who this session suggested using education funding to support a Hill Aerospace Museum expansion.

The museum at the Hill Air Force Base partners with Weber State University, creating the higher-education link that he says could justify putting school money toward the $24 million request. Chew’s ozone study is being handled by Utah State University, and Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, says college students will lead a project to add capability to a state parks mobile app — which explains his $300,000 request to the higher education committee.

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.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, makes a statement during a committee meeting to discuss bill SB46, at the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

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?

Despite the relatively large surplus in the Education Fund, advocacy organizations have questioned whether enough new resources will be appropriated for public schools. Lawmakers have suggested enacting a 4% increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit — a per-student funding metric at the core of school budgets — but the state’s largest teachers union has pressed for a 6% bump.

On Friday, members of the Salt Lake Education Association staged a walkout and marched to the state Capitol, where they rallied in support of increased school resources.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teachers in Salt Lake City’s teacher union stage a walkout and rally at the Capitol to protest teacher pay in an effort to pressure the Utah State Legislature as it decides how much money it will allocate to the state’s education system Friday. Teachers began the rally at the Federal Building and walked up Capitol Hill to the statehouse for a rally in the rotunda, Feb. 28, 2020.

House Speaker Brad Wilson criticized the demonstration and has said other groups are starting to resent the education community as they "see that we can do a 4% WPU increase, which goes to a raise for teachers, but we can’t fund programs for the disabled.” Speaking to reporters this week, the Kaysville Republican predicted an effort to repeal the constitutional earmark for education within the next year or two.

But with Utah continuing to hold last place in the nation for per-pupil spending, the state must boost its investment in public schools rather than chipping away at its funding protections, said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association.

“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.”