When Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert announced his budget priorities for 2015, it is significant that he took more than a third of his prepared remarks to discuss education priorities.
As recently as 2011, earmarks from the legislature have stripped discretion in this area and placed many dollars squarely and firmly into transportation budgets. In Utah, this means building and maintaining roads at all levels of government and locales, often at the expense of education needs.
Senator Ralph Okerlund (Republican – Monroe), who serves as the Utah Senate Majority Leader, indicated that revisiting earmarks, and “how they tie-up dollars,” has been something that the legislature has been considering for the past “year or so,” and indicated that more than one bill was passed during his service in the Senate that were directed with earmarks.
The “T” word
Governor Herbert stated, “43% of all new growth monies is earmarked…now is the time [for the legislature] to revisit the earmarks. Those discussions need to happen.” He urged his state’s legislature to consider new taxes associated with transportation to make up the difference in the revenue allocations addressed in his budget rollout.
“The taxes may need to be borne by those who use the state’s resources the most,” said Herbert, “Whether through increased gas tax [at the pump] or in highway taxes [collected as use taxes] …it is important to note that the state has not increased gas taxes in 17 years.”
Okerlund indicated that the state legislature has been considering these “revenue enhancements” (notice no “T” word in that description) deliberations and will likely bring them up when the legislature convenes in January.
“There are a lot of ideas out there,” said Okerlund, ” and this topic is extremely important at the local level where transportation funding is critical.” Okerlund stressed this as a solution for the needs of Utah’s counties and cities specifically.
“My number one budget priority since I’ve taken office is education,” said the Governor, “We need this priority to keep Utah competitive in the marketplace with a skilled labor force.” With that, Utah’s executive branch, led by Kristen Cox in the state’s Office of Management and Budget, indicated that $246.5 million would be directed to public schools and $64.5 million devoted to the state’s colleges and universities. With new revenues of $191 million, a total of $502 million are involved in this year’s budget discussions as new education dollars. When combined with federal monies, the Beehive state will devote a total of $5.3 billion to education as combined funding if Thursday’s recommendations are approved.
Increase in the “Weighted Pupil Unit”
The governor’s budget involves a 6.25 percent increase in what is known as the “weighted pupil unit (WPU),” which calculates funds available to specific school districts and programs. This is significant to Utah educators since it represents the largest increase in 25 years in that education line item. Depending on local priorities, that translates into dollars available for teacher salary increases over-and-above an additional $15 million in the budget for supplies. A video description of the “WPU” can be found here.
Need for New Growth Anticipated
$58 million of the education budget recommendations are slated to account for more than 8,000 new students in the state as well as $56 million for “capitol outlay foundation” allowing smaller districts to accommodate their own needs. To that end, the Governor stressed that these allocations would be “pushed down” to the local level of administration in the state, emphasizing that local school boards and superintendents would ultimately decide priorities after the legislature approves the general distribution as recommended. “We won’t decide for local districts, but will expect accountability as a result of legislative oversight for a better educational outcome,” said Herbert.
Since Utah’s executive branch has invested heavily in their negotiations with the federal government’s Health and Human Services department to allow the state’s taxpayers’ money to return to local control, the Governor’s remarks about earmarks were also directed to that discussion. $4.6 million of the state budget would “allow [Utah] to begin accessing those federal dollars in the three-year pilot program,” said Herbert. A combined $446 million would then be available to the Healthy Utah program under this expansion. That effort has already met with considerable debate and discussion in the legislature’s interim Health Task Force, with more scheduled for December 18.
$20 million of the budget proposal is on a line item for newer and more efficient school buses, presumably to be used on the roads of the Wasatch Front, where most of the ridership and air pollution exists. $750,000 is available for research programs for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality whereby most of that would be allocated for science and data monitoring. $135,000 is set-aside for compliance programs to assure the public that those involved in industry are accountable for any violation of state regulations. That point is a contentious one, since critics decry the inability for the state to issue stronger regulations than those in place by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Interestingly, for those whose sole-source of home heating in the state comes from wood-burning stoves, the Governor’s budget includes grant monies of $1.5 million. Those close to this issue will be following how much of the Governor’s proposal actually survives the state’s budget approval process during the upcoming legislative session.
Water in Utah
Governor Herbert closed his budget presentation with what he described as a “growing issue in [Herbert’s] mind,” that of water resources. In the past, the Governor has reminded the public that the federal government has gotten out of the “reclamation business,” which puts more pressure on the states to plan for their own water resources. This is especially important when the state anticipates more growth in years ahead. Citing “Your Utah, Your Future” as the planning program he has previously emphasized, water resources become the “center of that effort,” according to Herbert. To that end, the Governor’s budget priorities include $11.2 million in inspection monies to insure the safety of dams and reservoirs in the state; $600,000 to maintain Utah’s clean water (via DEQ); $130,000 for canal inspections and $440,000 for the adjudication of water rights. That figure foreshadows the kind of conflict that Mark Twain described when he said that “Whiskey is for drinking but water is for fightin’ over.”
Governor Herbert submitted his budget priorities on Thursday by describing them as “rational, reasonable, responsible and responsive,” and defended the process that his staff has been undergoing since September as one that keeps “Utah as an example to this country.”