ANTELOPE ISLAND STATE PARK, Utah — In front of the greatly receding Great Salt Lake, Governor Spencer Cox unveiled a $25 billion state budget that includes more than a half-billion in spending for water conservation measures and a $160 million grocery tax credit.
The state is taking advantage of federal stimulus money under the American Rescue Plan Act to pay for some big projects.
Gov. Cox bypassed legislative desires for an income tax cut in favor of a $160 million grocery tax "credit," allowing families to claim a rebate on grocery purchases. It does not eliminate the sales tax on food, like advocates for lower-income Utahns have called for.
"This proposal is much more generous. It will actually give a much larger benefit to the poor than they would get just from eliminating the sales tax on food," the governor said Tuesday.
FOX 13 first reported the governor was considering it last month. Gina Cornia with the advocacy group Utahns Against Hunger, said she was intrigued by the proposal.
"On the face of it, it’s really exciting," she said. "Proposing $160 million to offer a refundable grocery tax credit is great. But I have a lot of questions."
Cornia said it could work, if it were able to be quickly distributed to disadvantaged Utahns and they could track down everyone who qualified. The state also promises to seek out those who may not make enough to file income taxes to get the credit, the Governor's Office of Planning & Budget said.
The governor's office favors the grocery tax credit over a proposed income tax reduction that Republican legislative leaders have proposed. House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he still supports the income tax cut.
"An income tax rate reduction affects and benefits every Utahn," he said.
On Tuesday, the legislature's powerful Executive Appropriations Committee set aside money for tax cuts — $160 million. That sets the stage for negotiations between the legislature and the governor.
"Who knows? Maybe what happens at the end is a little bit of both," Speaker Wilson told FOX 13.
The governor's spending priorities were unveiled in his first budget since being elected last year. A governor can propose a budget, but it is the Utah State Legislature that passes one.
Gov. Cox is proposing some big spending requests including $520 million for water conservation and infrastructure as the state continues to grapple with drought.
"Things that we probably should have been doing for the last 10 years that we haven’t. I’m very excited," he told FOX 13. "This will be the biggest water conservation and investment package in the history of our state."
The spending includes:
- $46 million to help protect and preserve the Great Salt Lake habitat, a major contributor to northern Utah's entire ecosystem
- $25 million for Utah Lake preservation and management efforts
- $50 million for agriculture water optimization to ensure farmers and ranchers are using best practices to conserve water (they are the single largest user of water in the state)
- $200 million for secondary water metering, which will track, and can eventually charge, users for how much outdoor watering they do
- $90 million for drinking water improvements across the state
- $1.5 million for homeowner turf removal programs, incentivizing people to ditch their lawns for desert-friendly landscaping
The amount is significantly more than the $100 million the legislature appropriated earlier this year. Asked about the money for the Great Salt Lake, Speaker Wilson (whose district includes the lake) called it "a start."
On other environmental initiatives, the governor has asked for $3 million to expand electric vehicle charging options across the state, another $4.7 million for improvements to air quality monitoring across the Wasatch Front and $46 million for transit projects.
Education takes up a huge chunk of the state budget, and Gov. Cox is proposing nearly $1 billion in new spending for both public and higher education. The governor's proposed education budget includes $550 million for K-12 schools, including a 5% weighted pupil unit (the formula often used to factor into teacher salaries). In a surprise move, the governor is proposing to eliminate school fees from public schools statewide. It's a move that will cost the state $55 million. He is also proposing:
- $22.8 million for all-day kindergarten
- $56.9 million for at-risk students
- $5 million for rural community college expansion
- $1.5 million for feminine hygiene products in schools
"The governor has proposed significant amounts for education. I think it’s very important," said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who said there were many parts of Gov. Cox's proposed budget that he liked.
The Executive Appropriations Committee also approved a 5% WPU, showing agreement with the governor in education funding priorities.
Gov. Cox is proposing to spend another $228 million on affordable housing projects (including what's termed "deeply affordable" housing that targets homeless populations including enabling more so-called "tiny homes"), $141 million for "The Point," a massive development planned at the site of the old Utah State Prison in Draper and Bluffdale. State employees will see boosts in salaries and benefits, particularly public safety. He has also budgeted to expand parental leave for state employees.
The Governor's Office of Planning & Budget is also recommending $10 million for public health response, but also setting aside $100 million "just in case" as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds.
Another $144 million will be pumped into improving the state's technology as the Cox administration leans more into teleworking. State liquor stores will see technological upgrades in the governor's budget. In an indication of the governor's support, his office budgeted $3.2 million to implement online ordering from state-run liquor stores, also known as "click & collect."