Quickly, and with little debate, Utah lawmakers spent more than $540 million in federal money on Wednesday.
The funds are part of an expected $1.6 billion in federal support coming to Utah in the third wave of pandemic relief.
So, where is this round of money going?
Legislative budgeters say there are several funding “buckets.” The first allows states to replace lost revenue, shore up their unemployment systems and address infrastructure.
To that end, about $100 million, will backfill the state’s unemployment fund, which has been hit hard during the pandemic and keep the state’s unemployment trust fund solvent.
In fact, lawmakers will use a big chunk of the money to replenish parts of the state’s $17.1 billion budget that have already been allocated for what the Treasury Department has dubbed “revenue replacement.”
Another $50 million is headed toward grants for local businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic.
There are some big-ticket items in the infrastructure funding budget.
Roughly $90 million will help establish a mental health institute at the University of Utah.
Another $100 million is earmarked to pay for grants to pay for water development and conservation programs.
“We’re looking at things like secondary water metering, dealing with canals across the state and other conservation projects,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.
None of that water money will be spent right away, despite the ongoing drought in the state. The Department of Natural Resources has until October of this year to build a priority funding list. Legislators anticipate spending an additional $180 million from the federal stimulus money on water projects over the next few years.
There’s $35 million to improve broadband networks and the security of state computer systems, and $12 million to improve online access to the state’s court system, which has been severely impacted by the need for remote work due to the pandemic. Lawmakers earmarked $10 million for rural broadband development, which is money already spent.
Hunger and Higher Ed
Social programs and education are also in line to see some significant funding from the federal cash.
Lawmakers are taking $17 million to address hunger in Utah. There are plans to establish a food bank in San Juan County and the Navajo Nation and there is $7 million to purchase a building for a statewide food bank in Salt Lake City.
Students who left school or put off higher education due to the pandemic will be eligible for “Education Reengagement Scholarships” to pay for one year of tuition and fees at Utah colleges, including technical colleges. Those scholarships can also be used by workers who want more training for their careers. The Utah Board of Higher Education is tasked with distributing those scholarships.
What about housing?
One point of contention is support for affordable housing.
Legislators only put $35 million in this round of funding toward the effort, which is half of the $70 million they anticipate spending on housing. The remaining $35 million will wait until January’s general session. Advocates were hoping for a lot more.
“Just a few months ago we put $50 million into affordable housing projects,” Wilson said. “That money is just going to start getting to work in July. My expectation is we will come back and figure out what makes sense and put more money into those programs.”
There’s also some spending to address the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and to help the state prepare for the next one, with $18.5 million to pay for vaccine distribution in locations where it may be difficult for residents to access them as well as $10 million for pandemic-related mental health services. Utah will also use $20 million to update the state’s public health information system.
State lawmakers also acted to create a federally-funded grant program that would help local governments pay for projects on housing affordability, homelessness and water or sewer. Under the program, which will be administered by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, a committee will consider grant applications from local governments, which would have to agree to match the funding dollar for dollar.
The grants would incentivize cities to coordinate on projects of regional significance rather than spending American Rescue Plan funds on smaller, less-important efforts, said House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.
“We don’t want these federal funds to be frittered away on one-off projects that may not have a significant impact to the citizens of the state and may only provide a temporary benefit,” Schultz said. “We want to ensure that the funds are spent in a way which provides the greatest long-term benefit and impact for the state.”
HB1004, the legislation creating the program, passed unanimously and is on its way to Governor Spencer Cox for signature.
— Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this reporting.