Utah’s Governor, Gary Herbert, told reporters assembled on Wednesday that he was working on his upcoming budget presentation to the state’s legislature and that primary and secondary education funding would continue to be his top budget priority. “We still have challenges going forward, though,” Herbert admitted,”[but] last year we put $458 million of ‘new money’ into the budget for education. Six million dollars went toward teachers’ supplies… to defer the teachers from having to pay for supplies out of their own pocket.”
The ongoing fiscal nod still seems to be inadequate to some of his constituents where “Go Fund Me” accounts with matching grants are being applied for in Utah and other states concerned about teacher retention, class size burdens, and non-classified school costs. Herbert’s statement reflects his commitment established months earlier to help teachers and learners in his state where per-pupil funding has lagged even in budget surplus years. Herbert seemed determined to establish more help for teachers who have been beleaguered by increased demands with inadequate pay, given the realities of a 2016 economy.
“It’s not just a thank-you and a handshake” that will get the teachers more respect and income noted a reporter. Herbert agreed and stated that an increase within the “weighted pupil unit,” a formula allowed for determining funds dedicated per-student to fund teachers’ salaries while maintaining “local control,” (a concept that Utah’s Governor wholly endorses) is generally supported by his office as well as the state’s legislature.
Herbert supports an increase in the amount available to local districts for attracting and retaining new teachers and admitted that in his view, the increases to the WPU have been insufficient over the past three years. He also said that “merit pay” had been available in some areas where districts and administrators could reward teachers who outperformed peers or who were working in adverse conditions, in previously low-achieving schools for instance. Herbert did not address teacher assessment models which would be left to the districts to determine. “We’ve had some successes,” Herbert said, “Two-thirds of the state’s budget goes to education.”
The Republican Governor also acknowledged that an ongoing “collaborative effort” is going to be required to make the state’s education system the “best in America,” a statement included in his opening comments to media representatives.
There are generally three ways that school (or any) funding can increase, Herbert acknowledged when asked if he supported a tax increase for schools: One is budget realignment to support the education requirements, second is to stimulate more economic growth to advance available state revenues, and the third is for increased budget application in tax increases, a solution most politicians avoid, especially in the Beehive State where some counties have already increased property taxes for non-education needs.
Utah had increased taxes for transportation, the Governor pointed-out, via increased user fees, that allowed for the first solution (budget realignment) to proceed in the state’s current budget year. “We don’t want to follow the Illinois model where they increased taxes and immediately lost 100,000 jobs,” emphasized Herbert. Asked to clarify if he would propose a tax increase, Governor Herbert said that would not be part of his education budget solution.
Taxes continued to be discussed when it was pointed-out that Salt Lake County and West Jordan City sales tax increases had been proposed to attract new business to those areas. Proponents of the “Project Discus” plan would fund some job opportunities (critics say not enough) without increasing the number of students and the education burden there. Governor Herbert agreed that the proposals were locally driven and that the state had merely been involved in Project Discus “to facilitate discussions.” At this point in the press conference, the state’s economic development incentive model was cited as being successful and is referred to as “Pulse Performance,” the system allowing business incentives to be both reasonable and appropriate for the positive economic impact expected.
Herbert was pressed to explain to Utah voters why he is still a Trump supporter when the most recent polls revealed that in Utah’s Congressional District 4, one of the state’s most conservative population centers which now includes Provo, Orem and south Salt Lake County, has “gone blue” to presently support Hillary Clinton. While exhibiting some distress at having to respond, Herbert restated his support of his republican colleague Governor Mike Pence (Indiana) and would not refer to Donald Trump by name until a reporter asked, “Why are Utah Republicans having trouble with that ticket?” “Let me ask you a question,” Herbert bristled in response, “Why are Democrats having such a problem with Hillary Clinton… and all over the country? This is a unique election. You can’t just point out the problem with Mr. Trump without pointing out the problem with Hillary Clinton,” he said.
Beyond education, economic development and the national election, reporters also inquired about Utah’s recent decision to bring yet another lawsuit against the federal government, this time involving the Environmental Protection Agency’s “regional haze” rules that Herbert feels will be too costly for Utah to bear. Given the state’s poor “win-loss” record on federal lawsuits, Herbert was asked how this most recent litigation could be justified. His explanation could serve to appease the numerous critics of the Obama administration, but the state’s economic drivers now include substantial influence from the Outdoor Retailers Association and the Travel and Tourism sectors.
And finally, with Utah Congressman Rob Bishop’s “Public Lands Initiative” appearing to be too late to forestall another National Monument designation within the state, Herbert (who has favored protection in the four corners area in some fashion) said that the legislative solution was the one he preferred. Utah’s Schools and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is responsible for converting public land into dollars that the state’s schools may then use for educating the youth of Utah. If the Public Lands Initiative is looking like a no-go before a possible designation by an outgoing administration in Washington, (notwithstanding the educational value inherent in a National Monument or conservation area) Herbert does not support the Bears Ears National Monument, a proposal by a multi-Native-American tribe coalition to protect the Bears Ears region in southeast Utah.