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Big changes to education funding coming as budget shortfalls hit the Utah legislature

Lawmakers approving $20 billion budget
The Utah State Budget
Posted at 6:40 PM, Mar 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-06 20:59:05-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers began approving a major change to Utah's education funding structure as some big issues may not be in the state's $20 billion budget.

On a 23-6 vote, the Senate approved Senate Joint Resolution 9, a proposed constitutional amendment that would move spending for services for children and people with disabilities to be paid for by the income tax. That's earmarked exclusively for education.

Meanwhile, the House on Friday approved House Bill 357, sponsored by Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, a companion bill to it by a 62-10 vote. The House bill goes to the Senate for consideration, the Senate resolution goes to the House now.

Any proposed constitutional amendment would be decided by voters in November.

In a floor debate, House Speaker Brad Wilson argued that the funding shift would help stabilize the financial shortfalls the state faces in years to come. Other lawmakers argued it's a better way to solve those problems after the collapse of the tax reform bill earlier this year.

"Hindsight being 20/20 this is the way we should have gone in the first place," said Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield.

The bills have earned the support of the state school board, district superintendents and other education groups. However, the Utah Education Association and the Utah PTA have not weighed in on it yet.

Speaker Wilson made an appearance at the House Minority Caucus to pitch Democrats on backing the bills. He said it could free up $650 million for other essential government services.

"If we don’t end up seeing these pass this year, either because we choose not to put the question on the ballot or voters choose not to do it, we come back and we have to do tax reform 3.0," he said.

Democrats split on supporting it on the House floor.

"Education funding is a top priority for Utah’s citizens and for the legislature. Today, every Republican as well as five Democrats, voted to guarantee funding for growth and reduce the volatility in education funding," Speaker Wilson said in a statement to FOX 13 after the vote. "We have worked closely with education stakeholders to create sound and stable policy. We hope all lawmakers and all Utahns will want to be a part of this positive step for Utah students and teachers."

Lawmakers are dealing with some big financial issues since tax reform collapsed in the face of a citizen referendum. The novel coronavirus and stock market volatility have forced them to start socking away money into rainy day funds, in case Utah's economy sours.

"We’ve had this shadow of the coronavirus that’s been floating around. Then we’ve also had this thing taking place in the stock market," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who oversees the budget for the Senate Majority. "We’re really worried what this could turn into."

Lawmakers were forced to prioritize the most important things in the $20 billion budget with an eye on keeping Utah's economy going. State employees will get a modest raise, while Utah correctional officers will get a little more to keep them from walking out the door.

But it means some funding requests don't get funded.

"There’s a lot of things in the state that didn’t get funded," House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, told reporters on Friday.

The proposed budget that was unveiled on Friday did cut out a lot of asks. Teachers marched on Capitol Hill last week for a 6% weighted pupil unit that largely funds salaries for educators and class resources -- the legislature proposed 5%.

Tourism gets $24 million. Mental health treatment will get millions, and homeless issues specifically get another $1.5 million. Affordable housing will get about $10 million. Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, who asked for $35 million for affordable housing, still left happy.

"We can still do a heckuva lot of good with that," he told FOX 13.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, feared that clean air initiatives would not fare so well. She was glad to see support for expanding the electric vehicle charging grid. Governor Gary Herbert called for $100 million in air quality funding in his proposed budget.

"I’m concerned about some of our very good bills that may not get funded this year," she said.

Lawmakers did find $500,000 to help fund infrastructure in the tiny community of Westwater. FOX 13 highlighted their plight earlier this year as they lobbied lawmakers to fund water and power. The budget appropriates $3 million for Olympic venue improvements.

Still to be decided, whether or not to give a tax cut to Utahns. Lawmakers have set aside about $80 million to potentially offer one, but House and Senate Republican leaders are divided on whether to offer it.

"There are storm clouds on the horizon, we’ve seen it, we can feel them," Speaker Wilson told the House Minority Caucus. "The question we all are going to have to vote on at some point is do we take that $80 million and do any kind of tax relief with it or set it aside for a rainy day."