West Haven • Gov. Spencer Cox took the wraps off the largest budget proposal in state history Tuesday morning — some $29.5 billion he wants the state to spend on efforts ranging from making child care more accessible to expanding affordable housing in fiscal 2025.
After approving nearly $1 billion in tax reductions over the past three years, Cox’s proposal does not include any more suggested cuts amid indications Utah’s economy may be slowing slightly. Income tax revenues have been lower than expected for the first few months of the current fiscal year, which is why Cox is holding off on more cuts.
“This is a very balanced, a very conservative, a very responsible budget,” Cox said at a news conference in West Haven.
The massive financial blueprint marks a nearly 4% increase over his $28.37 billion proposal from last year, but not every spending proposal from Cox will end up in the final budget that lawmakers will craft and finalize in the 2024 legislative session beginning next month.
Here are the highlights from the governor’s proposal:
Cox is asking lawmakers to add $854 million in new spending for public education next year. Some of that money will go to benefit rural school districts and a new pilot program to pay student teachers.
Cox proposes a 5% jump in per-pupil funding, known as the weighted pupil unit (WPU) — an increase of $211.7 million. Lawmakers are required to raise school funding to cover inflation. Most of that boost (3.8%) is a mandatory increase to cover inflationary costs. The discretionary portion, just over $50 million, makes up the remaining 1.2% increase.
His budget tacks on an additional $33.9 million increase in the WPU for rural students. There also is $55 million in one-time funding to support building new schools in rural areas.
In an effort to address the state’s teacher shortage, Cox proposes putting $12 million toward a new pilot program for student-teacher stipends.
Help for families
Cox wants lawmakers to spend $4.7 million next year to expand Utah’s child tax credit to cover children through age 5. Currently, it is available up to age 3. He also plans $5 million in one-time spending to expand the availability of affordable child care in the state.
“Strengthening our families is at the heart of everything we do in our administration,” Cox said. “Healthy families have been the key to our state’s success, and we want to nurture and assist those families”
Utah’s low unemployment rate has made it harder for the state to recruit and retain qualified workers. Cox recommends $157.6 million to give state employees a raise. That includes a 2.3% cost-of-living boost for higher education workers.
Cox’s budget asks for $15 million to alleviate staffing and concerns in the Department of Corrections. The money will help hire more staff and end mandatory overtime for employees.
Tucked into Cox’s budget summary is a proposal to remove employee protections for state workers — moving them from career-service to “at will” positions. A 2022 policy paper from the right-wing America First Policy Institute endorses that move, saying it will make removing “problematic” employees easier. Right now, state workers can be fired only “for cause” after they complete a one-year probationary period.
Anticipating that Utah’s attempts to restrict the ability of minors to access social media platforms will bring a legal challenge when they take effect next March, Cox has included a little more than $1 million to defend the new regulations in court.
Lawmakers appropriated more than $1 billion for water conservation efforts and preservation for the dwindling Great Salt Lake over the past two years. Most of that money has not been spent yet, which is why the governor proposes just $81.6 million in new spending on water programs. That includes $27.9 million for the Great Salt Lake, $25.7 million for infrastructure upgrades and $28 million for watershed protection.
The infrastructure upgrades include $5 million for improving the safety of dams in the state.
Cox held news conferences Monday and Tuesday to highlight aspects of his budget meant to tackle two growing problems in the Beehive State — homelessness and rising housing costs. His recommended investments in those areas more than double the $150 million he proposed last year.
At the Atherton Community Treatment Center in West Valley City, he announced a proposal to put $128 million toward emergency shelters for the state’s unhoused population. As chronic homelessness grows in Utah, Cox also introduced plans to spend $8 million on behavioral health and $10.6 million on “HOME” Courts judicial diversion. The governor described that as “a less restrictive civil option for individuals with mental illness who do not meet the standard for civil commitment or criminal diversion courts.”
The executive branch also proposes adding $10 million for the state’s housing preservation fund and $30 million for deeply affordable housing.
Cox made public Tuesday his appointment of a housing innovation adviser to accompany millions in spending toward a goal of building 35,000 starter homes by 2028.
After the Legislature passed a bill last session that created the “First-time Homebuyers Assistance Program,” the governor’s office wants to steer $50 million more toward that effort. Cox also suggested $75 million to pay for infrastructure to support new housing, creating a $5 million Starter Home Innovation Fund, and recruiting off-site home manufacturing to the state.
The governor wants to put $5 million toward expanding community land trusts, making homeownership cheaper, and $15 million toward growing sweat equity programs, which allow buyers to do physical labor to shrink their down payments.