Lawmakers add more than $2 billion to Utah’s budget. How do they plan to spend your tax dollars?

Tax cuts, education funding and water conservation are top spending priorities.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun sets on the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

Late Friday, legislative leaders added more than $2 billion in spending to Utah’s budget for the next fiscal year, bringing the overall price tag to $24 billion. The spending spree includes more than $500 million in ongoing funding and $1.5 million in one-time spending.

The seven appropriations subcommittees spent the first three weeks of the 2022 session reviewing budgets and requests for funding which they used to make their spending recommendations. Budget leaders then used those priority funding lists to make the budget decisions released on Friday night.

All of the final spending decisions made by the Executive Appropriations Committee were made out of the public’s view with little or no public discussion.

It wasn’t just the public kept in the dark on those budgeting choices. Most lawmakers saw the funding list for the first time on Friday afternoon. House and Senate Republicans got their first look during lunchtime caucus meetings. Democrats got their first glimpse shortly before afternoon floor time.

Friday morning House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, only spoke in generalities about budget decisions because they were not public yet.

“We’ve taken some of the ongoing money that was part of our new revenue estimates, and we’ve set it aside to either prepare for some potential difficult times financially in the future or maybe a future tax cut,” he said, regarding whether the conflict in Ukraine will impact the state budget. “There’s some things we’re doing to try to make really prudent financial decisions and prepare for the unknown.”

Lawmakers plan to boost per-pupil funding in Utah’s public schools by about 6%. Before the session, legislative leaders set aside $72 million. Friday’s spending list included another $124.6 million.

Overall, legislative leaders added 9% to the public education budget on Friday night. The spending includes $12 million to expand optional all-day kindergarten, which is less than the $22.7 million requested by the appropriations committee for public education.

Lawmakers took a more significant increase in education funding off the table earlier this year by rushing through a $193 million income tax cut package in the first half of this year’s session. Those cuts, which mostly favor larger families and higher-income Utahns, are paid for out of the Education Fund.

Friday’s budget proposal added $168 million in ongoing funds to public education, which is less than the $193 million they put toward tax relief.

The Social Services budget includes $55 million in one-time funding for a deeply affordable housing program. That’s less than half the $127 million the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee prioritized on its spending list. Federal funding from the COVID-19 relief packages passed by Congress may make up the difference.

Curiously, the Social Services funding list includes $15 million for “housing preservation.” The priority list from the appropriations committee did not have that funding request. Beyond the vague title, there’s no information on where the appropriation came from or how it will be used.

The budget proposal includes several expenditures for water conservation. There’s $200 million for secondary water metering, $30 million for Bear Lake preservation and $40 million to help preserve the Great Salt Lake.

The Legislature added more than $2 million to their budget for next year. The Utah House added $1.29 million to the House with another $783,900 for the Senate. There’s very little detail on how the House funding will be spent. The budget proposal only mentions “necessary staffing” and improving areas in the Capitol. The Senate funding increase includes three full-time salaries and $100,000 for improving the Senate lounge area.

The final budget decisions will be made next week before the session adjourns on Friday at midnight.