Herbert proposes $200 million public education funding boost in budget

Gov. Gary Herbert took the wraps off his $16.7 billion budget proposal on Wednesday at Davis Technical College in Kaysville. As in recent years, it’s mostly about finding more money for Utah’s perennially underfunded education system.

“We’re in a good place with a healthy, growing economy,” said Herbert. “But we can’t rest on our laurels for the future.” 

Herbert and lawmakers have $483 million in extra funds to play with next year. $382 million of that is new, ongoing money, plus another $102 million in one-time cash.

Most of the ongoing funds go toward education in Herbert’s budget outline, with $275 million of new, ongoing funds for education. That’s 72% of all new state revenue. $208 million of that is for K-12 education while the rest goes to higher ed.

Herbert’s public ed proposal represents a 4% increase in the WPU. There’s another $34 million to address the needs of at-risk students and $25 million to equalize funding among school districts. All of that adds up to an effective boost in the WPU of $5.6%.

“You ought to be able to get the same quality education in Bountiful as you do in Bluff,” said Herbert.

There’s also $36 million in the budget to cover the additional 7,700 new students in Utah’s public schools next year. That fully funds the 2% growth in student population.

Utah’s total education budget, including local, state and federal money, is a whopping $9 billion per year, which breaks down to about $10,400 per student.

It’s no accident that Herbert wants to throw much money at education next year. Lawmakers are staring down the barrel of a ballot initiative in 2018 that, if approved by voters, would hike income and sales taxes to bring in an estimated $700 million per year for public education. Herbert’s proposal likely won’t be enough to assuage the Our Schools Now petition backers, as it’s less than a third of the new funding OSN backers want to pump into schools.

Herbert’s budget outline also holds a big boost for higher education. 

  • $35 million for employee compensation, which includes $8 million to head off mandatory tuition increases.
  • $24 million will go to the Utah State Board of Regents to fund their priorities.
  • $7 million will boost funding at technical colleges.

Herbert also wants to spend $34 million for a new health education building at the Davis Applied Technology College.

Herbert continued his push for lawmakers to address mandatory earmarks in the budget on Wednesday, complaining that 39% of all of the new money in this year’s budget is already spoken for through earmarks. In fact, total earmarks coming from sales tax money has jumped 2900% since 2000. That’s not a typo.

“It’s a healthy process to have the Legislature decide how that money is spent rather than it being automatically spoken for,” said Herbert.

Sales tax is where Utah’s budget is most vulnerable. Collections had been stagnant until Utah entered into a voluntary agreement with big online retailers like Amazon, which resulted in a healthy boost in collections this year.

The shift from a goods-based to a service-based economy is also putting pressure on the budget. That narrowing of the base, which means fewer people paying for government, is driving the effort to reform Utah’s tax system. 

One way to alleviate those budgetary pressures is increasing user fees, which Herbert’s budget aims to do. 

For instance, transportation funding is out of balance right now, with sales tax revenue being shifted toward transportation needs. An increase in user fees, whether it be through a gas tax or increased registration fees, is one proposal Herbert would like to see come to fruition is allowing the use of transportation funds for other projects besides roads.

“We should be able to make recommendations outside of asphalt. We need to be able to take our dollars to find where we will get the best return and not just lock ourselves into roads,” he said.

Other significant items Herbert wants to address in his budget:

  • Air quality. The DEQ wants to reduce statewide emissions by 2026. Herbert wants to spend $850,000 on air quality research. They’re also hoping to shift the state workforce toward telework to reduce the number of cars on the road.
  • Water issues. The budget proposal has $1 million for studying water use and another $8.4 million to address dam safety.
  • Public safety. Herbert suggests spending $1.4 million to reduce backlog at the state crime lab, $730,000 for what he called “intelligence gathering” in law enforcement and another $460,000 for treating inmates in county jails. 
  • Social programs. The budget adds $21.5 million into Medicaid, another $5 million to match the federal grant for CHIP (assuming Congress will reauthorize funding for the program) and $10 million in one-time money to pay for Operation Rio Grande.

Herbert is also proposing a 2% raise for full-time state employees, plus money to cover the increasing cost of healthcare premiums.

Herbert acknowledges that his budget is just a starting point for the legislature, which has the final say in how state money gets spent.

“Our goal is to find rational ways to portion out the money that’s reasonable and respectful of the taxpayer,” he said.