Republican state House and Senate leaders, meeting for around four hours on Saturday, have reached what they hope is a final budget deal and will take it to their party caucuses Monday morning.
If all goes well, the final major piece of the 2014 Legislature is agreed upon – and it will be just a few minor financial cleanups and the passage of many bills before lawmakers adjourn at midnight Thursday.
GOP sources told UtahPolicy Sunday afternoon that despite unpleasant feelings of last week – GOP House leaders refused to meet with their Senate Republican counter-parts for most of the week, finally agreeing to come fact-to-face Friday afternoon and evening – good progress was made on Saturday.
Part of the sticking point is House Speaker Becky Lockhart’s request for hundreds of millions of dollars for a public school technology initiative.
It was sprung on GOP senators almost mid-way through the 45-day general session, and Republican senators have been skeptical ever since.
Then last week GOP Gov. Gary Herbert said he could maybe see putting $30 million into the Lockhart plan, but not more.
He threatened to use his line-item budget bill veto power if GOP colleagues spent more than $30 million on the Lockhart initiative.
And GOP senators finally offered just $26 million.
Said one GOP source Sunday, “We thought that was equitable and fair.”
There was even some talk – no one on Capitol Hill really took it seriously – that the GOP majorities and Herbert just wouldn’t adopt a 2014-2015 budget this general session, but come back later in the spring in a special session.
In recent memory – even with threats of gubernatorial vetoes, and rancor between the House and Senate Republicans – the GOP-controlled Legislature has never failed to adopt a new budget during a general session.
One GOP source Sunday said that Lockhart – disappointed over the $26 million GOP Senate leaders were offering, or even the $30 million limit Herbert had placed on her initiative funding – apparently said basically “to hell with it” and turned down any money.
That, however, could change as the final days of the 2014 session wears down.
Lockhart, R-Provo, who is retiring this year and is looking at running for governor in 2016 – possible against Herbert – has been taking hits in the media and on social Internet comment boards over her initial $300 million initiative.
Her plan – the bill is being carried by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton – has a one-time spending of $50 million and on-going in fiscal 2015 of $150 million – is to drastically improve classroom technology in K-12.
At some point, every child would have either a table or laptop to take home and work on.
Lockhart’s critics said from the first that this was the speaker’s attempt to come up with a bold education initiative in her final year in office, since she has little in her 16-year House record on education reform or increased spending.
Utahns year after year point to public education as the top priority in the Legislature, and to run for governor with no education reforms on her relatively-long legislative tenure could be seen as problematic come 2016.
But, unfortunately for the speaker, the new late-February state revenue estimates for next fiscal year didn’t come in over former projections – meaning there was not significant new money for her program.
Herbert and Senate Republicans than stood against her – even though she had strong support from other members of her GOP leadership team and her 61-member-strong House Republican caucus.
Part of Lockhart’s problem is that she suggested money be taken from transportation funds – the Legislature earmarked a small part of the state sales tax for roads several years ago.
And with Utah roads crumbling and bridges needing replacement or major repairs, GOP senators didn’t want to harm road funding to get money for Lockhart’s education plan.
Public education budget staffers estimate it would cost around $45 million to bring broadband WiFi into all Utah public schools – even though some districts, like the Davis County School District, basically have broadband in their buildings now.
When it became clear that Lockhart couldn’t even get that $45 million – in one-time monies, which are easier to find in the $13-billion state budget – and would be limited to basically half of what she would need to hard-wire Utah schools, she stepped away from even that, one source told UtahPolicy.
However, there are still four days left in the session.
And if the House Republican caucus on Monday morning refuses to accept the deal worked out by GOP leaders from both houses on Saturday, then Lockhart’s technology initiative could still get some needed funds before adjournment.