Utah Legislature OKs base spending bills for higher ed, state employee pay

Critical government functions are funded even if the legislative session is upended by COVID or other emergencies.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Members of the House of Representatives are partitioned by plexiglass as the Utah State Legislature opens the 2021 legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.

Utah lawmakers gave final approval to next year’s $21 billion base budget on Thursday, putting in place a fail-safe measure ensuring the state has a budget in place if the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forces a premature end to this year’s session.

By law, the base budgets for the coming year must pass by the 10th day of the session.

The spending bills given final approval Thursday ensure that state employees will get raises and agency operations will continue without pause.

Legislators passed budget measures dealing with higher education; business and economic development; infrastructure and general government; the National Guard, veterans affairs and the Legislature; and compensation for state employees.

“This is simply a holding bill to ensure that if something happens unforetold, we have the budget in place,” said Rep. Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele, who was the House sponsor of the base budget on infrastructure and general government.

Most notably, lawmakers added $400 million in new funding to the public education base budget — a decision made even before the legislative session began. That spending boost included money to cover anticipated student growth and inflation, as well as one-time $1,500 bonuses for teachers and lesser amounts for many school staffers.

“It’s unprecedented for us to put growth in our education system in the base budget,” said Senate budget chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton

The measure on staff compensation would allow 3% labor market pay increases for state employees, higher education workers and staff in the legislative and judicial branches. The bill would also offer health insurance benefit increases to state and higher education employees.

State lawmakers traditionally rely on base budgets as a mechanism for making sure the state is funded, even if they can’t agree on other spending decisions before the end of the 45-day legislative session. This year, these base budgets took on greater significance because of the uncertainty added by the COVID-19 pandemic. The process was implemented after former Gov. Olene Walker threatened to veto the entire budget in 2004 if the Legislature didn’t add more money for an early childhood reading program.

Still, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters this week that leaders “haven’t really anticipated that we were going to close or shut down after the base budget.”

Legislators have been relying on face-masking requirements and a rapid-testing regimen to prevent a coronavirus outbreak. A couple of state senators have tested positive this week and are quarantining while participating remotely in the legislative session.

But, lawmakers aren’t done yet. Based on revenue projections, there’s at least another $1.5 billion left to spend, maybe more. The lion’s share of that money, $1 billion or more, will likely go toward long-neglected capital improvements including maintenance at state parks, which have been overwhelmed by demand because of the pandemic. Lawmakers also plan to add capacity to the FrontRunner commuter rail system and spend on expansion of I-15 in Davis County.

“We’re probably one of the few states in the nation that is able to increase funding like this because of our great economy and how well we’ve managed the pandemic,” Adams said.

There are indications that there could be even more money to spend than originally anticipated. Utah’s economy is certainly trending toward a boom with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. However, legislative leaders are worried that the extra cash they’ll have on hand might be a mirage due to a massive influx of federal coronavirus relief funding. It’s likely that leaders in the House and Senate will treat much of that extra funding as one-time money as a hedge against it evaporating once the federal spigot is turned off.

The measures now head to Gov. Spencer Cox for his signature.