A year after standing on the ever-expanding shore of the dying Great Salt Lake and proclaiming that water conservation is among the state’s top priorities, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is ready to spend more than a half-billon preserving the state’s quickly diminishing water resources.
But that proposal doesn’t come close to the state spending outlined in Cox’s proposed budget for next year, which includes massive tax refunds and education spending. The plan, which was made public on Friday afternoon, includes $1 billion in tax relief to Utahns, along with a total of $1.52 billion on public and higher education.
And although a teacher pay and benefits bump would be among the governor’s largest expenditures, with a proposed earmark of around $200 million, the increase could largely depend on whether and how lawmakers negotiate for a school vouchers program. Utah lawmakers will ultimately create a state budget during the 2023 legislative session, with Cox having the option of approving or vetoing the spending.
At a whopping $28.37 billion, the proposed 2024 fiscal year budget is the largest in Utah state history.
At a preview of the proposal on Thursday afternoon, Cox said his plan also included spending $400 million to issue rebate checks to taxpayers.
On a snowy street in South Jordan’s Daybreak neighborhood on Friday, Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson delivered the final details of the governor’s proposed budget. Cox said his plan for next year was made with families in mind and planning for Utah’s future.
“We’re looking at policies to ensure Utah remains the best place in the world to raise a family,” Cox said.
One example he cited Friday in his proposal for $8.7 million in funding to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage to new mothers. Currently, the state only gives postpartum coverage for two months, Cox said, explaining that he wants to extend it to a full year.
The governor also wants to allocate $53.5 million to domestic violence prevention, something he said was a historic effort that is long overdue.
The proposal also includes another $54 million for mental health resources.
According to Cox’s budget, the governor wants the state to spend roughly $561 million on water and conservation efforts statewide, amounting to one of the largest budget items. The proposed spending includes improvements to the state’s water infrastructure, water planning and management.
The budget also appears to call for setting aside $132.9 million toward addressing the drying Great Salt Lake, in addition to investing $217.9 million for statewide conservation in the hopes of benefiting the lake in the long term.
The governor’s plans also say the state drew 23.5% less water from Utah’s reservoirs this year compared to 2021, though it’s not totally clear what led to the drop in water usage. Cox said that the drop was from usage reductions in residential homes and within agriculture.
Housing and homelessness
The proposed budget calls for the state to spend roughly $150 million on housing initiatives, including specific earmarks for affordable housing and homelessness services geared toward getting people into stable housing.
Cox recommends the state spend an additional $100 million in one-time spending, which would aim to add an estimated 2,000 affordable housing units around the state. That price tag includes $80 million in federal funds, specifically from the American Rescue Plan Act, and $20 million from the state’s general fund. During the last fiscal year, Utah spent roughly $55 million in ARPA money to create over 1,000 affordable housing units.
For current and prospective homeowners, the budget recommends $15.3 million in homebuyer assistance, with Cox requesting funding for programs designed to help educators, firefighters and veterans buy homes for the first time.
The proposed budget calls for spending roughly $463 million on direct investments in rural areas of Utah. Part of that price tag includes funds for housing in rural areas, including $2.3 million in funding for the Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, which provides no-interest loans for single-family homes in rural areas.
Paying off debt
Cox’s blueprint takes an aggressive approach toward debt reduction, allocating nearly $1 billion for that purpose.
Currently, Utah sets aside approximately $465 million toward the state’s debt annually. Cox wants to more than double that total by adding $321 million in one-time money and another $200 million in long-term payments.
Utah has just under $2.5 billion in debt from bonds from various construction projects. About $400 million of that total will come due in the 2024 fiscal year and another $414 million the following year.
Last year lawmakers used $350 million in one-time cash to retire the outstanding debt from the construction of the new state prison.
State employee pay
Utah teachers aren’t the only public employees who may get a pay bump under the proposed budget package.
Cox’s proposal calls for $143 million in ongoing spending and $34 million in one-time spending to beef up compensation for state employees.
Within that additional spending is $38 million for larger, targeted salary increases, meant for jobs with median salaries that are the most dramatically under market. One of those targeted positions includes case workers for the Division of Child and Family Services, according to the proposed budget.
Odds and ends
Cox is continuing his push for a freeze on tuition increases at Utah public colleges and universities.
For transportation, Cox wants to establish what he’d call an Active Transportation Investment Fund with $55 million from the state’s general fund and additional state revenue to boost the construction of a statewide trail network, a goal Cox outlined during a trip to Woods Cross in October.
Cox is also proposing a one-time capital investment boost to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services. The state says it needs a new warehouse to ensure the DABS keeps up with demand, as all liquor in the state must be processed in an aging warehouse in Salt Lake City. Without a new warehouse, officials say retail sales are projected to stagnate.
The budget calls for $119 million to be used for land acquisition and building construction. Not only would that fund the proposed warehouse, but the money would also fund replacement stores in Moab and Roy, plus a new store in the Ogden area.
Nowhere in Cox’s plan is funding for a proposed gondola in the Wasatch Front’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. The governor said Friday he was not planning to allocate money until the project plan was finalized.
“This is still a process right now with the gondola,” Cox said. “We’re gonna go through the entire process, see where everything ends up after we receive all of the comments back, and then we’ll look at our options at that point.”