Here’s how Utah lawmakers cut state spending to cope with COVID-19

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) The Senate discusses bills during the morning session of the Utah Legislature's Fifth Special Session on Thursday, June 18, 2020.

A month after Utah reduced its education and general fund spending by more than $1 billion, advocates are still taking stock of the sweeping government cuts and wondering if more are in store.

The reductions could’ve been much worse, they largely agree. Despite economic turmoil from the coronavirus, state revenues don’t appear to be tanking as badly as some had feared. Lawmakers also decided to draw deeply from reserve funds to help plug budget holes and protect state aid to critical programs and services.

And yet, the state Legislature in June also adopted hundreds of individual cuts across Utah agencies, and advocates on disabilities and children’s issues say they’re still figuring out what many of the line items mean for the people they serve.

“We’re struggling to decipher exactly what it all means,” said Nate Crippes, legislative and policy counsel for the Disability Law Center.

Crippes said he also worries that lawmakers might have to slash spending again if the pandemic continues to strain the economy.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) The House during the morning session as the Utah Legislature held its Fifth Special Session on Thursday, June 18, 2020.

Overall, last month’s special session actually enlarged the state budget compared with the version adopted in March, with the fiscal plan growing from about $20.3 billion to $21.2 billion, thanks to an infusion of federal aid. Still, in anticipation of slumping tax revenues, Utah legislators decreased spending out of the state’s two core accounts — the general and education funds — from $8.6 billion to $7.3 billion, budget documents show.

Expenditures from the education fund, which supports the state’s K-12 schools and colleges and universities, dropped from about $5.6 billion to $5.5 billion, according to the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst. Lawmakers said they protected school funding as much as possible, preserving state aid for enrollment growth and a year-over-year hike of 1.8% to per-student funding.

Other areas of the budget absorbed bigger blows.

Matthew Weinstein of Voices for Utah Children said most of the advocates he’s talked to appreciate the way the Legislature prioritized programs and spending categories. Still, he said, he hasn’t gotten the clarity he needs about how the cuts add up and argued the state could’ve siphoned more from reserves to shore up support for critical programs.

“The cuts,” he said, “are certainly more than they needed to be.”

Social services

Last month’s budget reductions were designed to spare social service programs, which are still seeing a 5.4% funding increase compared with last year, officials have said.

But health and human services agencies didn’t escape unscathed. The Legislature decided among other things to roll back a planned compensation rate increase for care providers who work with individuals with disabilities.

Ann Silverberg Williamson, executive director of the Utah Department of Human Services, said the state has been gradually boosting these rates over the past several years after learning that the pay wasn’t sufficient to keep many direct care staff in their jobs.

“There was such prolific turnover in that ... they really needed to adjust the rate the state paid so they could then pass that compensation on to the front-line staff,” Williamson said.

Though the state rescinded the planned $650,000 increase for the coming budget year, Williamson hopes lawmakers will restore the funding bump when the economy rebounds.

Planned increases for juvenile-service providers similarly fell prey to the budgetary pinch, with lawmakers eliminating $2.25 million in funding to boost compensation rates for residential treatment providers.

The state’s pay to these facilities is “definitely below market,” Williamson said, adding that her agency will continue to advocate for higher compensation during better times. But for now, she said her agency is focusing on keeping young people out of group settings that increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“Ideally, we want to provide treatment for a young person as close to their home or in their home or with a loved one as possible,” she said. “Particularly in a pandemic.”

In the same vein, she said, officials have decided the foster care system might not be the place for children who display aggressive behavior or need intensive crisis care. In the past, she said, parents who felt unable to care for their children safely have at times turned to the foster care system.

Going forward, Williamson said, the agency will instead try to keep these young people in their homes while connecting families with mental health and crisis services. This change will result in roughly $1.6 million in savings, an amount that lawmakers cut from the agency budget.

Children still could be removed from their family homes in cases of abuse or neglect, when it is unsafe for them to stay with their parents.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Nate Crippes, staff attorney with the Disability Law Center, talks about Utah's "bridge" Medicaid expansion program at a news conference in Salt Lake City's Liberty Park, April 1, 2019. Crippes said advocates are struggling to decipher precisely what impacts legislative budget cuts will have on services for the disabled and for children.

Crippes said his organization was pleased the Legislature tapped reserves to avoid larger budget cuts. But he noted lawmakers did trim more than $2 million for quality incentives at intermediate care facilities.

“Given all the concerns around long-term care,” Crippes wrote in an email, “it is unfortunate that the funding to improve the lives of people with disabilities living in them is being cut when they need it most.”


Overall, public schools fared much better than many other categories, said Mike Kelley, spokesman for the Utah Education Association (UEA). Though education spending was trimmed back from the amount state lawmakers approved in March, before the pandemic began hammering Utah, legislators did keep a year-over-year increase.

“The legislators, with prodding from teachers and others, were able to do some great things to basically pull a rabbit out of a hat,” Kelley said, “and create a budget that was very supportive of our students.”

Jay Blain, the UEA’s policy and research director, said the teachers union does have concerns about a roughly $13.3 million cut for administrative staff in smaller school districts. Those local districts, with fewer than 5,000 students, depend on that money to pay the salaries of superintendents or finance officers, Blain added.

He also pointed to a $1.1 million reduction in state support for pay increases at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. These schools are not funded through the weighted pupil unit that’s slated to go up by 1.8% this year, Blain explained, so without this extra money, they won’t have the resources to boost teacher salaries.

“They’re not going to get anything, not even rudimentary increases,” he said. “We don’t feel that that’s appropriate.”

Utah’s colleges and universities took an across-the-board 2.5% dent in state funding, according to the list of budget actions. A spokesman for the University of Utah said the reductions are spread across the school and “will require some difficult decisions.”

“The university’s administration is working with leaders across campus to identify exactly how these cuts will impact their areas,” U. spokesman Chris Nelson wrote in an email.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) An empty University of Utah campus on March 11, 2020, during spring break foreshadows what is to come as the U.'s professors prepare to move classes online due to the coronavirus outbreak around the globe. The Legislature's 2.5% across-the-board cuts for higher education will mean some difficult decisions at the U., a spokesman said.

The U. will also have to do without $1.5 million in state money for October’s vice presidential debate. During this year’s legislative session, U. representatives argued they needed state aid to help pay for fencing, tents and security, among other things.

Nelson said the elimination of this funding “certainly presents an unexpected new challenge” but explained that the U. is fundraising and collaborating with the Utah Debate Commission to make up the difference for the scaled-back event.

Public safety

Funding for the state’s crime lab remained in place, much to the relief of officials at the Department of Public Safety (DPS). That continued support will help the lab keep processing a backlog of rape kits, said Joe Brown, who handles the department’s finances.

“The Legislature was very good to us, in the sense that they could’ve cut more, but they didn’t,” he said. “They left a lot of things intact, and we appreciate that.”

But the agency did have to absorb some cuts, losing $5.2 million to replace an aging search and rescue helicopter.

State lawmakers also removed $850,000 for a DPS contract with Banjo, the Utah-based surveillance technology company. The Utah Attorney General’s Office had a similar deal with the tech company and also saw an $850,000 appropriation for Banjo eliminated from its budget.

Brown said legislators left in place $6 million to cover the salaries of about 50 state troopers hired during Operation Rio Grande, a campaign to address lawlessness and homelessness in Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park area.

On the other hand, state lawmakers erased the roughly $1.9 million to give pay increases to state troopers and investigators, Brown said. The state has a multiyear plan to boost these salaries to remain competitive with nearby law enforcement agencies.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “we didn’t get that this year.”


An ambitious plan to expand the state’s electric vehicle charging network lost $2 million in state funding because of the changes adopted in last month’s special session.

Rocky Mountain Power has pledged to partner with the state to invest nearly $50 million to this effort, and Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership, said the government contribution would’ve helped yield a more seamless system of charging stations.

“It just will put the onus on the state or the co-ops or advocates to find this money in a future budget,” Carter said of the $2 million reduction.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) A Utah electric vehicle charging station, Jan. 6, 2020.

His organization is also suffering from the cuts — with a $94,000 hit to the state’s air quality awareness campaign. The Utah Clean Air Partnership holds the roughly $500,000 state contract for this campaign, but Carter said his group has “decided to have the attitude that it could’ve been a lot worse.”

Lawmakers did not, however, tamper with the annual subsidy for EnergySolutions, a politically connected radioactive waste disposal company.

A preliminary list of cuts had called for lowering an annual state payment to EnergySolutions by about $600,000. Utah lawmakers in 2018 passed a bill to offer the company the annual reimbursement to offset certain fees that it pays, even though state environmental quality officials say they know of no other business that receives this type of benefit.

Legislators ultimately fought to preserve the subsidy, arguing that EnergySolutions is saddled with other hefty taxes and fees. On the other hand, environmental advocates saw the subsidy as a perfect place to save public funds.

“If the state is in a budget crunch, then, yes, that definitely should be going back,” said Scott Williams, executive director of HEAL Utah, “because there’s no evidence that the current economic situation is affecting EnergySolutions’ business at all.”