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Cox proposes money for Great Salt Lake, free transit, health care and housing

Posted at 3:50 PM, Dec 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-09 19:37:56-05

SOUTH JORDAN, Utah — Governor Spencer Cox unveiled the remainder of his $28.4 billion budget on Friday, proposing big spending increases for the Great Salt Lake and water conservation, a year's worth of free transit along the Wasatch Front, affordable housing and homelessness projects, mental health care and domestic violence victim services.

"We have some amazing opportunities and some amazing priorities here," he said at a news conference.

With a backdrop of a neighborhood under development, Gov. Cox and Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson announced the administration's budget recommendations, including $150 million for housing and homeless needs. The governor said specific proposals on homelessness are still being negotiated, but he wanted a bigger boost in affordable housing.

"This is one of our top priorities with the legislature. We have to do more to increase the supply of housing and this is across the board," he told FOX 13 News.

Gov. Cox on Thursday unveiled his education budget that included $6,000 teacher raises, a higher education tuition freeze and $1 billion in tax cuts, including lowering the income-tax rate.

On housing, Gov. Cox is proposing:

The budget proposes a half-billion for water conservation alone as the Great Salt Lake has dropped to record lows and presents an existential threat to Utah. It includes many things FOX 13 News has already reported his administration was exploring:

"Every piece of this budget will ultimately help water get to the Great Salt Lake and get to our other lakes and reservoirs as well," Gov. Cox told FOX 13 News.

Lynn de Freitas, the executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake, said the investment in agriculture is a good thing because they are the top water user.

"That amount of water we can save from using for alfalfa and livestock feed could be translated to measurable results for the lake," she told FOX 13 News.

Gov. Cox also proposed $25 million to fund a one-year, statewide pilot project exploring the concept of "free transit." It would subsidize costs for transit agencies from Logan to St. George. "Free Fare February" earlier this year, negotiated by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, was a big hit.

Lexi Tuddenham, the executive director of HEAL Utah, was glad to see the pilot project proposed. Her group has worked with the legislature to fund free fares on days when Utah's air quality is at its worst.

"Demonstrating the numbers and the air pollution savings that we will certainly see from this year of free fare is an excellent way to move forwards towards cleaning up our air along the Wasatch Front," she said.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall signaled her support for the idea in a tweet:

The governor also proposed setting aside $100 million for "future transit projects" specifically at "The Point," the massive development project replacing the old Utah State Prison at Point of the Mountain (that's in addition to $108 million for infrastructure at that site and $50 million for a "Convergence Hall."

The governor also proposed a $100 million investment in a statewide trails network.

Gov. Cox also proposed some big social services spending increases, including:

  • $54 million for mental health care treatment
  • Expanding Utah's postpartum Medicaid coverage from two months to a year
  • $1 million for a campaign warning about the harms caused by social media usage and too much screen time
  • $16 million to increase at-home visitation for at-risk families
  • $5.4 million more for services for people with disabilities
  • $4.2 million for new juvenile detention housing in Provo, West Valley City and Cedar City
  • $1.3 million to fund a prison nursery to help pregnant and new mothers who are incarcerated
  • $53 million to bolster chronically-underfunded domestic violence victim services

State employees will receive a boost as government agencies are recording employee turnover as high as 20% in the "Great Resignation." That includes salary increases by as much as 12%, with DCFS caseworkers (whom FOX 13 News has reported have lived on government assistance programs in some cases) getting as much as an 18% boost in salary.

The Governor's Office of Planning & Budget disclosed that Utah's liquor sales would stagnate by 2026 because of limited storage at the state's massive warehouse, the governor proposed $119 million for a new one and replacing aging stores in Moab and Roy and a new state-run liquor store in Ogden.

In other spending projects, the governor proposed:

  • $27 million to expand digital government services including online dispute resolution in the courts, telehealth services and a statewide privacy director for government data
  • $20 million to enhance state cybersecurity
  • $5 million for flood mitigation efforts
  • $50 million to accelerate dam safety
  • $29 million for Utah's electrical grid
  • $325,000 toward a regional hydrogen hub for energy
  • $25 million for a fund to respond to natural disasters
  • $50 million for seismic upgrades, specifically Utah's water supply
  • $600 million for a "state building infrastructure fund"
  • $60 million for a wildland fire suppression fund
  • $361,000 for language translation services for government services to help non-English speakers

The governor said negotiations were ongoing with Republican legislative leaders about other tax policies including the gas tax, road user mile fees for electric vehicles and the state portion of sales tax on groceries.

While a governor can propose a budget, it is the Utah State Legislature that actually passes one. Lawmakers will consider his budget recommendations in the 2023 session that begins in January.

You can read the budget here: