Lawmakers will spend $35 million on aid for homeless in 2017

Utah State CapitolNo one can say that the Legislature – led by the GOP House and Senate leaders – didn’t stand up for Utah’s homeless this session, and put tens of millions of dollars toward their rehabilitation efforts.

A rough tally of the various appropriations, money bills and ongoing social service efforts shows that lawmakers will spend upwards of $35 million starting in July on various buildings, programs and financial aid for the homeless.

That’s just in one year – more than three times what some thought the state’s contribution would be when the Legislature started Jan. 23.

That’s more than the original $28 million over three years promised by the 2016 Legislature.

In their leadership tenures, various former speakers of the Utah House have had their special issues, their spending priorities.

Current Speaker Greg Hughes, who first stepped into that office for the 2015 Legislature, has had several goals – but Utah’s homeless effort is perhaps closest to his heart.

While the state has always had social service programs for the homeless — the addicted, or single mothers with minor children in need of help, and such — it was Hughes who decided that homelessness – and the cost of facilities and programs – was really a statewide issue, in need of statewide aid.

With the help of now-House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, GOP leaders started looking to help the Salt Lake City and County separate homeless commissions – which were studying what to do to help those in most need.

Those were efforts run by the Democratic administrations of both local governments – for as all the leaders said, homelessness is not a partisan problem.

And the GOP legislative bosses started looking for money.

Originally, for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, lawmakers were planning to add another $9.5 million allocated for this current budget year.

But when the homeless effort started to bog down – in part due to the political mess Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the City Council found themselves in after publicly locating four new homeless shelters in the city – Hughes and Gibson decided to boost the state’s financial and political efforts.

The result was a renewed, and reworked, homeless plan outlined in general details two weeks ago in a joint press conference.

But state leaders stayed away from totaling up their financial cost then.

UtahPolicy now adds up half a dozen specific spending plans and bills to reach the $35 million effort this general session, which includes more than $3 million in jail reimbursement funds, which Hughes says should be considered part of the homeless effort.

“I’m really happy with what we’ve been able to do this (session),” Hughes told UtahPolicy.

The funding appears to be in the balanced budget lawmakers are finalizing before adjournment midnight Thursday, although a special state-city property tax bill by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, has yet to pass both houses.

HB452 is a carrot-and-stick approach that would take a bit of property tax away from counties that don’t have a homeless shelter and give it to a city that does have a homeless shelter (the new politically-correct term is homeless resource center) to help fund the center’s operations.

It is appropriate, says Hughes, for all of the counties to help with the homeless effort, for to some degree all the counties find their citizens challenged with having no homes of their own.

“We’ve had a challenge getting all of these fiscal issues” put together this session for the homeless state programs – and while it couldn’t have been done without the help of Salt Lake City and County leaders, including Biskupski and County Mayor Ben McAdams – it likely also wouldn’t have been done without Hughes’ and Gibson’s constant pushing, either.