More than $2 billion in extra revenue is available in Utah’s budget for next year. Even with that eye-popping amount, most proposals for spending that money won’t get off the ground.
Utah’s 104 legislators submitted more than 350 funding requests this year, totaling more than $3.2 billion.
Appropriations committees spent several weeks prioritizing those requests and making recommendations to legislative leaders. Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, the House chair for the Legislature’s top budgeting committee, anticipates sifting through those priority lists will be extremely difficult.
“If you look through those requests individually, they all have merit. They’re all good things that are helping a group, or helping the state or helping a community. The big question is whether this is a vital function of state government?” Spendlove said.
What have those committees decided are vital government functions?
Public education could see a 6% boost in per-pupil funding this year. The Legislature is required to cover the costs of inflation and school enrollment growth. To meet that obligation, lawmakers set aside $135 million, or a 3.4% increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit, which is how Utah measures per-pupil funding. Legislative appropriators recommended adding another 2.4%, or another $104 million, bringing the total to $239 million.
Even though it’s not on the funding priority list, lawmakers are already on the hook financially for pay raises to public school teachers while also funneling taxpayer money to private schools. It took the GOP-controlled Legislature just ten days to send HB215 through at the start of the 2023 session. The bill spends $196 million annually to provide a $6,000 pay raise for Utah’s teachers, or about $500 per month before taxes and benefits. Another $42.5 million annually gives students $8,000 to pay for private school tuition.
Another $36 million to expand all-day kindergarten across the state was prioritized near the top of the list, continuing a program funded by lawmakers last year. There’s another $175 million request to make safety upgrades in schools.
There are hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for developing the former Utah State Prison site at the point of the mountain, known as “The Point,” including $108 million to create a revolving loan fund to help finance infrastructure construction on the site and $50 million to build Convergence Hall, which will house the “Utah Innovation Lab,” a technology business incubator.
The top priority for new state buildings includes $72.8 million to construct a computing and engineering building at the Univesity of Utah, which is more than half of the $189 million total cost. Just over $39 million has been prioritized for a new building at Mountainland Technical College’s Wasatch Campus in Heber Valley. There’s also $200 million to create a fund for future infrastructure projects and another $100 million for future state buildings. For renovating existing state buildings, $246 million is on the table.
Other prioritized funding items include $20 million for the state portion of a federal grant program to extend fiber optic data connections to rural areas, $22.2 million for a research center on the east shore of Utah Lake and $4.8 million to buy a new airplane for the state fleet.
Improving security for the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City will cost $30 million. The plan includes an underground parking garage, fencing off the block and acquiring two privately-owned buildings on the site.
Hundreds of millions of dollars for water projects were given spots at or near the top of priority lists. They include $200 million to optimize agriculture water use, $15 million for the Great Salt Lake Water Trust and $4.5 million for a cloud seeding program aimed at increasing precipitation.
There are a handful of funding requests for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Service under consideration. They include $87.9 million to expand the agency’s warehouse, $639,000 to build a new store in Ogden and nearly $500,000 to replace stores in Moab and Roy. Another $400,000 is on the table to increase security at state liquor stores.
The Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity has proposed spending $2 million to develop “branding and marketing” for the state and $199,000 to hire a marketing manager for the Utah Office of Tourism.
The Attorney General’s office is asking for $20 million to boost salaries for state lawyers to make them more competitive with the private sector. In addition to the salary boost, the attorney general’s office wants another $6 million to hire outside attorneys and another $3.5 million request to hire even more outside lawyers to represent the Legislature in lawsuits and other legal actions.
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Communities along the Bangerter Highway plan to cut back traffic enforcement on the roadway, leaving the state to pick up the slack. That will increase costs to the Department of Public Safety by $3.5 million yearly and another one-time cost of $1.65 million.
A legislative audit of Utah’s elections concluded the lieutenant governor’s office is understaffed. In response, a $120,000 request to hire a full-time election system specialist was included on the priority list, along with $500,000 in one-time money for improvements to the state’s election website.
Several funding requests for cultural facilities or events made the final priority list. Sen. Mike McKell is asking for $3 million to help build a new multimillion-dollar performing arts center in Utah County. Sen. Evan Vickers has requested $650,000 for theatrical equipment for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. And $200,000 in state funding for the Warriors over the Wasatch Airshow at Hill Air Force Base also made the priority list.
Legislative leaders also want to spend $1 million to purchase 30 ballistic shields for members of the Senate and House and staffers to use in the event of an active shooting. The spending request does not detail how those shields will be distributed among the 104 lawmakers and dozens of staffers.
Not all of those funding requests will make it into the final budget. A lot will depend on new revenue estimates coming next week. Legislative leaders will use those figures as the framework for the final budget proposal, which must be made public by Feb. 24.
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