Air quality, affordable housing, suicide prevention may not get any money in the Utah State Legislature

Posted at 7:40 PM, Mar 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-12 11:03:44-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- House and Senate leaders are at odds over the state budget, which could leave hundreds of millions of dollars worth of programs and initiatives unfunded.

Big priority items like suicide prevention, affordable housing and air quality could be left without any money if the legislature adjourns Thursday night without an agreement.

"We’re still trying to find a place where we can agree," House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said during an appearance before the House Minority Caucus on Monday to update them on budget talks.

"We oftentimes up here agree to disagree on things and that’s where we’re at now," he added.

After the big tax bill imploded last week, lawmakers pledged to keep working on the issue over the summer. But there's a difference of opinion on whether to fund some things until that's addressed.

The House's proposed budget is $400 million less than the Senate's $19 billion budget. But Speaker Wilson also acknowledged that if they can't reach a deal, it's possible that only the "base budget" gets through, leaving a lot of things unfunded.

Senate GOP leaders said they are committed to addressing tax reform, but still wanted to pass a full budget.

"The Senate wants to be responsible in making sure that solve the structural imbalance. There’s a commitment," said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said money had been moved around in their budget proposal to make it happen.

But the disagreement between the two chambers is causing anxiety for advocates for a number of bills still in process in the legislative session.

"I was joking I’ve been dispensing a lot of anti-anxiety meds this afternoon," said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.

So far, the legislature's Medicaid expansion replacement is funded. So is education growth and a small pay raise for state employees. But other big ticket asks are not.

"Obviously, I’m not happy. I think there’s some very important proposals, some very good plans we received from the governor’s office," said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, who quizzed the House Speaker about air quality. "I’d like to see them funded."

Other advocates were also worried.

"This means that funding is at risk for bills addressing things ranging from affordable housing to hate crimes," Bill Tibbitts with the Coalition of Religious Communities wrote in an email to supporters asking them to oppose the House's budget proposal.

Governor Gary Herbert's office appeared to side with the House.

"We support the process to pass a modest budget that meets the needs for core services while leaving room for a sizeable tax cut when we reconvene to modernize our tax system," said Paul Edwards, the governor's spokesman.

Senate Republican leaders said they were hopeful agreement could be reached, and indicated they were close on a lot of issues.

"We’ll keep working," Sen. Adams said.

Late Monday night, the House passed its version of the budget and sent it to the Senate. The Senate did the same, while also passing a proposed constitutional amendment to use the income tax to fund social services in addition to education. Right now, the income tax exclusively funds education.