Lawmakers racing to pass the budget before Friday

budget5To build or not to build. That’s is the question for lawmakers.

It’s coming down to crunch time for Utah lawmakers as they work to set the budget\. One of the biggest sticking points could be how to pay for new buildings, or whether to fund any new construction at all this year.

State law requires passage of the budget by this Friday. That means some of the bigger budget issues must be decided quickly, so House and Senate leaders can hammer out any differences before final passage.

Usually, lawmakers like to use one-time money to pay for building construction, since it’s essentially cash. This year, there’s only $13 million of that one-time money available, which is not much.

That leaves two options for legislators. Either they can borrow money for construction through bonding, or they can just not approve any new buildings at all.

Legislative leaders acknowledge that they’ve discussed bonding, but there’s not much appetite to borrow this year.

“We don’t want to bond,” says Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. “It’s hard to turn a one-time expense into an ongoing one, which is what you do when you have to make payments on the money you borrowed.”

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, is on the same page.

“We’ve talked about bonding, but it’s not a serious consideration,” he said.

That leaves the only other option on the table.

“This could be a year where we don’t build anything,” says Okerlund.

That’s going to be a difficult decision, as there are quite a few pressing construction needs, especially in higher education.

“The number of students is growing, especially at Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College,” says Niederhauser.

The rest of the budget won’t be a cake walk either. Even though lawmakers found out they have about $88 million more in ongoing money than they initially expected, there’s still not a lot of money to go around.

“The big question is how much money we can get into education,” says Okerlund.

The appropriations committee tasked with setting the budget for public schools is asking for about $170 million this year, which includes a 3% boost in the WPU. Each percentage increase in the WPU translates to about $30 million. Add in another $68 million to cover the cost of the 10,000 new students, and you’re already in the neighborhood of $158 million. Considering that lawmakers have $372 million in ongoing funding to allocate this year, $170 million is a big chunk.

“If we boost the WPU in that 3-3 1/2% neighborhood, we’re close to $170 million,” says Okerlund.

Sources tell that the Utah Senate completed their first draft of the budget on Thursday night and negotiations with the House will begin on Tuesday.