Lawmakers Grapple with Cost of Lockhart’s Education Proposal

It’s always tough for Utah legislators to say no to a request by a beloved leader for $5 million, $10 million or $20 million for a pet program, especially if the beloved leader is retiring.


But $200 million? $300 million?

That’s the position retiring House Speaker Becky Lockhart finds herself in this general session.

Lockhart, R-Provo, has what is known in the government business as a “big gear” idea.

She wants considerable funds to bring high technology to Utah public classrooms. Not just new computers and tablets, but a high-speed, interconnected wireless system statewide, training for teachers and aides to get the most out of what the Internet can bring, and innovative ideas and programs to help students of all ages not only learn with technology, but understand it so they can thrive in this high tech world after K-12 education.

Other House speakers and Senate presidents have had “big gear” ideas before.

Former Speaker Marty Stephens comes to mind and his APPLE initiative, aimed at bundling thousands of acres of federal and state lands together to reap hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars for public schools.

By the way, Stephens was planning on running for governor in 2004, and his APPLE initiative was a campaign signature and, if he had won, a goal he would have pushed for years as governor.

Legislators were, for the most part, happy to oblige Stephens with adopting APPLE. But then APPLE didn’t cost much money.

(And ultimately, after Stephens left the Legislature and lost his gubernatorial bid in the 2004 State Republican Convention, APPLE didn’t go very far, either.)

Lockhart’s STEM proposal (stands for science, technology, engineering and math) is new in its magnitude, although STEM has been organized and supported by legislators for several years.

The “big gear” idea is that if you move a big gear in government a little bit, many smaller gears are moved a lot.

In short, figure out a big gear move, do it properly and with enough money to get the job done, and you can achieve a lot of other things downstream – even kick start some programs that may have been a good idea, but were stuck with little action because the little gear couldn’t move fast enough to impact the big gear.

OK, enough with wristwatch/auto transmission examples.

Lockhart’s big gear plan depends this session – her last – as so many new ideas that cost money do: The final state revenue estimates for 2014-2015 which come in the final week of February.

If there is, say, $100 million more than current estimates made in November/December, then Lockhart’s STEM plan has hit the mother load.

But if revenues are flat, or, Lord forbid, go down, then the “BeckySTEM,” as her idea is now being called in Capitol hallways, is in real trouble.

Lockhart has already said she would accept a phase-in of her program – say $50 million this year and $50 million each year after for several years.

Trouble is, Lockhart won’t be speaker in 2015 and 2016. If GOP House and Senate leaders don’t embrace her plan for several more years, BeckySTEM could be in trouble, perhaps doomed for the APPLE graveyard.

(Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, is carrying Lockhart’s bill, yet to be introduced. Gibson ran for leadership in 2012, but lost by one or two votes. If Gibson gets into leadership for 2015-2016, BeckySTEM could survive phase-in funding.)

UtahPolicy asked Senate leaders Tuesday where the $200 million or $300 million could be found.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said legislator are still waiting to hear the specifics of Lockhart’s plan. “There’s no meat yet.”

GOP Senate leaders were a bit surprised when Lockhart first explained her idea to them in a joint leadership meeting last week.

Lockhart said she plans to flesh out her plan this week or next.

But Niederhauser says senators have a lot of questions.

Will the Legislature take growth funding for education and give $200 million for BeckySTEM? Will the WPU go up by 2.5 percent, as GOP Gov. Gary Herbert suggests, or be sacrificed for BeckySTEM. (WPU up by 2.5 percent could mean 2.5 percent pay raises for teachers.)

“Or will all this money go to the speaker’s initiative?” asked Niederhauser. He doesn’t see a tax hike for BeckySTEM.

No tax hike throws the speaker into the same pot of budget-hopefuls as other lawmakers’ whose bills carry a fiscal note.

“Honestly, we don’t know” where the STEM money will come from, said Senate Budget Chair Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

Leaders will likely wait until the late February revenue updates to see if there will be more ongoing tax revenue in the next fiscal year.

There is a final twist to all of this.

Speaker Lockhart’s husband is well-known lobbyist Stan Lockhart, a former state chair of the Utah Republican Party and current government affairs director for Micron in Lehi.

Stan is a member of a special STEM committee (he was appointed by the governor) whose aim is to better integrate STEM ideals into public education, and reward students who achieve certain STEM goals.

BeckySTEM is a good idea, but could it also be the killing of two political birds with one stone: Start a new education program in Utah (or greatly extend current programs) that help Stan’s commission’s goals while providing an APPLE-like initiative that Becky can use in running for governor in 2016?

Those questions are being asked by some GOP senators, who are more likely to wonder about the speaker’s initiatives than their own president’s proposals – especially if the speaker is retiring this year.

It’s likely up to GOP senators to carry BeckySTEM in the Senate.

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, said Tuesday she can’t speak for her (small) Democratic Senate caucus, but Senate Democrats want push Sen. Pat Jones’ large state income tax reworking to raise $400 million for public education, rather than Lockhart’s STEM.

That’s fine, GOP senators have more than enough numbers to carry BeckySTEM, assuming money can be found somewhere for it.