Lockhart’s Education Initiative Gets Shut Out in Final Budget Deal

The Utah House had a vision; the Senate wanted to make a deal.


That was the rather tough talk used by House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, in announcing Monday afternoon agreement on the proposed 2014-2015 budget; a budget that doesn’t have any money for Lockhart’s ground-breaking public school technology initiative.

While some personal and political feelings may be harmed, both Lockhart and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, told reporters Monday afternoon that Lockhart’s ideas and proposals will be studied for the rest of 2014 and come the 2015 general session perhaps action, and funding, can be given.

Niederhauser was careful to point out that the Senate was ready to pump upwards of $26 million into Lockhart’s plan – which most likely would have funded at least half the costs of bringing high-speed broadband WiFi into Utah schools.

But the speaker denied that was the case, saying in a press conference that as budget negotiations Friday and Saturday were worked through that GOP senators were looking to trim back even that $26 million.

On top of that, she said, it appeared to her negotiating team that new issues were being thrown on the table – like property tax hikes, gasoline tax hikes, Medicaid expansion and such.

Niederhauser seemed stunned by those comments, saying the Lockhart initiative came in mid-session and had not been “vetted” by interim study.

Maybe it was a good idea, but it was not ready for a major financial commitment, the president added.

In essence, the speaker – retiring at the end of this year – did put forward a major new initiative, she uses the term “vision,” for Utah school children, grades K-12.

Each student would get some kind of hi-tech equipment, like a tablet or laptop, which they would take home and work on in class.

Teachers would get extensive training on hi-tech teaching and testing.

And a specially-formed committee would oversee the whole effort, with metrics set and reviewed to ensure real revolutionary education changes.

“The House was trying to make history,” she said.

“The Senate was trying to make a deal.

“We were unwilling to make (their) deal, we chose to back away from the initiative.”

At least that much is agreed upon – that Lockhart took her initiative off the budget table, rather than take money “insufficient” to properly fund her effort.

Niederhauser said the Senate was ready to put some money forward, enough to start her initiative, and were a bit surprised when GOP House negotiators appeared Saturday and said just forget it.

But good things – some really good – are in the final agreed upon $13-billion budget, said Lockhart.

— Public schools will see a 2.5 percent increase in the Weighted Pupil Unit, the basic school funding formula.

— Utah colleges and universities will see “equity” funding; an issue college presidents have been pushing for years.

— The Legislature will fund a new “pod” at the Gunnison Prison, much needed as the state prepares to vacate the old, main prison in Draper and somehow develop that land.

— State and college workers will get a pay raise; public school teachers probably likewise, as their pay increases come in individual contracts with the state’s 41 school districts.

But Lockhart’s public school technology initiative wasn’t the only casualty as House and Senate Republicans were disagreeing.

Monday morning GOP senators quickly passed Sen. Brian Shiozawa’s partial Medicaid expansion bill – SB251.

“That bill won’t be heard by the House,” said Lockhart, as the House GOP caucus couldn’t reach agreement on any Medicaid expansion plan.

The speaker said in no way will inaction on Medicaid expansion hamper GOP Gov. Gary Herbert attempts to get the Obama administration to give Utah exemptions and/or bloc grants to aid around 54,000 poorer Utahns now in the Medicaid “donut hole” – lacking health insurance coverage.

Herbert said he will try to get federal waivers and bring any needed funding back to a special legislative session later this year.

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, said his 61-member caucus decided to ask the House Medicaid “experts” – Reps. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, and Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, to look again at the whole Medicaid issue and bring back some recommendations.

It seems unlikely that could happen before adjournment Thursday, but that was up to Dunnigan and Sanpei, said Dee.

There are also several Senate bills that either raise some tax or greatly rework some existing taxes.

Lockhart said those bills won’t be heard in the House, either, as lawmakers rush toward adjournment at midnight Thursday.

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, took specific exemption to the media reporting that House GOP leaders had refused to speak with their Senate leadership colleagues last week about the budget.

True, some joint leadership meetings were canceled, because there wasn’t a need to meet, he said. But at no time were House GOP leaders refusing to speak with senators.

There were individual budget conversations, there were groups of Republican House and Senate members meeting and talking. Reports to the contrary were not accurate, Dee said.

In the end, Lockhart said of her initiative, there just was not enough money or support coming from the Senate for her effort to go forward.

“I’ve said for some time that one thing worse than not doing it was not doing it right,” she said.

Every time GOP House negotiators went back to the budget-talking table, it seemed less and less money would be coming from the Senate, she said.

The Senate’s funding effort for her initiative amounted to “change out of the couch cushion.”

She said her initiative, in some form, will happen “because it has to happen, whether I’m here or not.”

“Our children are ready for it, and they deserve it. Eventually the Legislature – the Senate – and the governor will do this.

“It is the right vision. Unfortunately for many children it will not happen (this year) and they will not (immediately) have this opportunity.”