Gov. Spencer Cox unveils his first budget plan, ringing in at nearly $22B

Budget proposal seeks $250 million set aside for pandemic response and $125 million for ‘rural infrastructure’

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Spencer Cox speaks at his inauguration as Utah's 18th governor at Tuacahn Center for the Arts in Ivins on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. At left are Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Gabe Henderson. The budget plan Cox released Monday morning totals nearly $22 billion and includes a 5.83% increase for the public school basic funding formula and $1,000 teacher bonuses.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s first budget proposal, presented from his new rural office at Southern Utah University on Monday, provides a window into the administration’s first-year priorities: battling the coronavirus pandemic, investing in rural Utah and improving the state’s education system.

But the overarching theme of the $21.7 billion budget, Cox said, is “opportunity for all.”

“Even with the success that we’re experiencing overall as a state, it’s clear that some are not experiencing the same successes or even have the same opportunity,” he said during a virtual news conference outlining the particulars of the proposal. “Our constitution, our way of government doesn’t guarantee success, but it does guarantee equal opportunity. And we want to focus on that in our budget and in our administration.”

As part of the budget recommendation, which is subject to changes and ultimate approval from the state Legislature, Cox has proposed that $250 million be set aside for the state’s coronavirus response to complement federal funding.

Specific allocations could be adjusted as the state works to understand how the federal government’s most recent pandemic relief bill fits in. But the governor has proposed that the state put $100 million toward short-term support for heavily impacted households and businesses and $50 million toward helping schools weather the pandemic and keep kids in the classroom.

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Cox has proposed that the remaining $100 million be spent to fund the public health response — including improving access to testing and ramping up contact tracing. That money, Cox said, will also be “critical” as the state ramps up its vaccine distribution plan.

We are increasing the speed of our vaccine rollout and we’ve let our local health departments know they will have any resources they need at their fingertips to get people vaccinated within the week the vaccines are received,” he said.

Several education line items also relate to the pandemic, including a $1,500 bonus for school-level educators and $1,000 for other staff members “who have worked hard to keep schools going during difficult times,” Cox said.

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t the only emergency the Cox administration is considering in its budget. The budget proposal recommends setting aside $15 million for earthquake insurance after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake hit the Wasatch Front in March and $60 million for wildfire suppression after the state saw a record-setting number of human-caused fires last year.

The proposal also promises an $80 million net tax cut that would be returned to Utahns — something that was made possible after the state “tightened its belt” last year amid the pandemic. Cox recommends this be done by giving a Social Security income tax credit to low- and middle-income seniors and upping the income tax credit for dependent children.

With the “sizable amount” of one-time dollars available this year, Cox is also recommending several “generational investments,” including $350 million to double-track the FrontRunner commuter train system to improve air quality in the state. He’s proposed that $50 million be spent to improve transportation bottlenecks in the Wasatch canyons and that $125 million fund investments in open spaces, trails and parks.

Rural economic development

Cox, who grew up on a farm in Sanpete County, has promised to make economic development in rural Utah a central component of his administration, and his budget appears to reflect that aim.

He’s recommending lawmakers set aside $125 million to be spent on “rural infrastructure” — including $50 million for broadband, which has become a necessity for many people as school and work have moved online during the coronavirus pandemic. Some $8 million would go toward rural county economic development grants and $69 million would be allocated to create a new revolving loan fund for public utilities that are in “desperate need of repair.”

During the campaign, Cox made a point of visiting all 248 of the state’s cities and towns and said Monday that he noticed rural Utah’s roads in particular require significant investment.

“What we’re seeing is catastrophic failure in our roads infrastructure in many of our smaller towns,” he said during the news conference.

“But it’s not just that,” Cox added. “It’s things like natural gas, access to natural gas or power upgrades, and it’s impossible to attract any type of new economy if you don’t have the basic infrastructure. And so it’s this vicious cycle.”

Cox, who made his budget proposal from his new office in Cedar City on Monday, said it’s “critical that everyone in Utah felt like they were represented in this budget.” And he and members of his Cabinet plan to spend time in the rural Utah office, he said, “so we’re constantly reminded that the state is more and bigger than the four counties with the majority of the population.”

In addition to the line items in the budget related to rural Utah, the new governor also signed two executive orders Monday that seek to support residents beyond the Wasatch Front.

The first requires all state agencies to review remote work opportunities, with the goal of expanding opportunities for teleworking — something Cox said could result in savings for taxpayers and increased productivity. The second executive order requires all state agencies to review positions and offices that could move to rural areas.

The governor’s budget also recommends supporting rural state employees by spending $12.8 million to create a state office in Richfield, which would house five agencies and more than 200 employees. The current state regional center there is “at the end of its useful life” and needs to be replaced, and leases in the area could be consolidated into this location, the budget notes.

Southern Utah University President Scott Wyatt praised Cox for his efforts to support rural Utah and to set up an office outside of the Wasatch Front, saying Monday that the “symbolic and practical effect” of such a move “is big.”

And he argued that better opportunity for residents in rural Utah will benefit the state at large.

“Every person working remotely from rural Utah is potentially one less car in the congested I-15, one less source of air pollution, one more savings for taxpayers and building new facilities in the high-cost real estate areas up in the highly populated areas,” Wyatt said.

Investing in education

Another major component of Cox’s budget proposal relates to public education, with the new governor proposing a total budget increase of nearly $431 million in ongoing funding and $180 in one-time funding for K-12 students.

That would include a 5.82% increase in the weighted pupil unit (WPU), the basic funding formula for public schools, and $112 million for the $1,500 teacher bonuses already endorsed by the Legislature.

Cox said the extra money for education would help fund enrollment growth and allow districts to provide “meaningful pay increases to teachers.”

“I cannot overemphasize how essential teachers are to our state’s long term success as they educate the young Utahns that literally are our future,” he said. “Let’s give them our support as a state.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents keep their distance on the lawn marked for social distancing for the lunch hour as students at Canyon View Elementary in Cottonwood Heights line up for the first day classes for the Canyons School District on Monday, August 24, 2020.

Cox’s budget recommendations also include efforts to target investment toward students that are most in need. Among the proposals is a $26.3 million increase to create a WPU for students most at risk of academic failure, similar to the existing add-on for special education students, and $8 million for a small district based WPU for school districts in rural Utah.

Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews praised the governor’s budget and the bonuses in a statement on Monday, calling the proposal a “significant commitment” to invest in the state’s students.

“When enacted, not only would this budget represent one of the highest levels of funding for Utah education in recent years, the significant step of establishing much of the increase in the Base Budget as proposed by the Executive Appropriations Committee makes this truly remarkable,” she said.

Matthews also requested that lawmakers “reverse their overwhelming workload” and support Utah educators “by strictly limiting education-related bills to the budget and essential legislation that must be accomplished during the 2021 General Session.”

Already, though, more than 40 education-focused pieces of legislation have been requested by legislators, and more are expected.

Cox’s budget proposal also recommends a $2.8 million increase for the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, while $12 million would go into additional special education intensive services. And $7.5 million would go toward expanding access to computer science for all students, with a focus on “those whose circumstances may otherwise provide for the least access to these fields,” Cox said.

While it doesn’t appear in his budget, the governor hinted that one of the biggest changes he’s seeking this year on the education front is a reexamination of the local school property tax in an effort to ensure students from more affluent areas don’t have better opportunities than those in poorer ones.

“The tax burden is not being fairly distributed throughout the state and we are recommending we fix this by putting a greater emphasis on the statewide property tax for school,” Cox said during his news conference. “We need to do better to ensure tax burdens and student funding are more equitable no matter the ZIP code.”

Some of his budget proposals will have the effect of moving money out of affluent areas, Cox said, but he argued for rethinking “the entire structure” of how schools are funded.

He recognized that’s a “heavy lift” and that there hasn’t been much of an appetite to make those changes among the legislative body in the past but said he’s seeing “more willingness” among lawmakers to have the discussion this year.

Senate President Stuart Adams said in a statement Monday that he appreciated Cox’s budget proposal and was grateful the governor had taken into account the recommendations of the legislative body.

“Many of the Legislature’s priorities align with the governor’s recommendations, particularly when it comes to education funding,” he said. “Providing funds for education has been and will always be the top priority for Utah policymakers.”