Herbert proposed budget boosts education, Medicaid and transportation spending

Gary Herbert 05

Gov. Gary Herbert, in his new budget recommendation for 2020-2021, calls for an increase in spending of 5.4 percent over the current year’s budget, and nearly $300 million more in public education funding.

Herbert formally released his new budget Wednesday morning, several weeks late so he could include the tax reform package passed by lawmakers in a December special session, along with its $160 million income tax cut. You can read more about his budget at https://gomb.utah.gov.

The governor’s budget officials, in speaking to the media Tuesday afternoon, said the 5.4 percent hike in spending comes because of increased spending on schools — something the governor, lawmakers and public want — and the full-funding of Medicaid expansion — something voters approved of in the November general election.

Outside of those two areas — with the addressing of several critical program expansions plus more money for roads — the rest of state government spending is “basically flat,” said Kristen Cox, Herbert’s budget chief.

Speaking to reporters and invited guests Wednesday morning at This Is The Place Heritage Park, Herbert said that while there is still work to do, much has been achieved since he became governor 10 years ago.

Yes, the state budget has grown, Herbert said. But mostly in areas that Utahns want, with the greatest effort coming in K-12 public schools.

The recently voter-approved Medicaid expansion has gone from 9 percent to more than 27 percent of state tax dollars, but done without a tax hike, as some other states have done, said the governor.

Under his eye school spending has almost doubled, from 2.6 billion to 4.9 billion — his spending number in the new budget.

“It is not all about money,” said Herbert. He then went on to list higher high school graduation rates, better test scores — No. 1 in some areas — and teacher pay going up year after year.

Overall, the main state budget will go from around $18.8 billion this year to $20 billion next fiscal year, which starts July 1, when federal dollars are added in.

In monies the state alone taxes, the number is $12.3 billion, and 52 percent of that goes to public and higher education.

Here are some of the Herbert budget highlights:

— The state’s main public school funding formula, the Weighted Pupil Unit, should go up by 4.5 percent (or $292 million more). The individual 41 school districts set pay for their teachers and administrators but raises usually follow increases in the WPU.

— There should be NO college tuition increases at all next fall, Herbert said, although he alone can’t stop the Board of Regents from setting higher tuitions.

— The state should issue no new bonds, and only one new college building should be constructed next year.

— Under the recent tax reform package adopted by GOP legislators, the per-gallon gas tax may go up, but there is no additional specific increase in Herbert’s budget.

— In fact, all of the various tax changes in the reform package are included in Herbert’s recommendation. If a citizen referendum to roll back the tax package makes the November ballot and passes, the state will actually have $160 million MORE to spend, since that is the size of the tax cut, which then won’t be given.

— State and college employees get a 2.5 percent COLA pay increase, with some specific workers in high-demand jobs getting more in order to keep them with the state, or fill current vacant posts.

— $2 million is put aside for full parental leave for state workers.

— $100 million for “targeted” air quality programs, which include some interesting proposals — $34 million for transit expansion, but the Utah Transit Authority will only get some in comprehensive work with the state Department of Transportation, $63 million to “build out” an electric vehicle recharging system statewide.

The goal is that electric vehicle owners may drive to almost any part of the state and back without running out of battery power — having Level 1 fast-charging stations at their disposal (a 30-minute charge time).

“You should be able to drive (an electric car) to state parks, almost anywhere, and not get stranded,” said Cox.

— A new $40 million endowment fund for open spaces.

— $20 million for a new affordable housing program, with an emphasis on adequate housing for homeless children.

— Full funding of Medicaid expansion to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Herbert also wants lawmakers to give future governors (he’s not running for re-election this year) “governing power” over public education.

This could come with the governor appointing (and removing) the superintendent of public education and/or giving the governor power to appoint the 15-member State School Board, now elected. The latter may take a constitutional amendment.

The GOP-controlled Legislature will set the final budget, with of course input from Herbert.

Current revenue estimates have a $482 million revenue surplus for next year, plus about $200 million in tax surpluses from the current budget year — or $682 million overall.

Herbert has balanced his fiscal 2021 budget recommendation WITH the $160 million tax cut and all the funding increases he’s proposed — like $300 million more for public education.

Should mid-February revenue estimates come in lower than those adopted in early December, then program spending will be trimmed — the $160 million tax cut won’t be affected, budget officials told reporters.

This will be Herbert’s last major budget recommendation. While he and his budget staff will make a recommendation next December, the newly-elected governor will put his/her own budget with an updated plan for the 2021 Legislature.

Herbert said when Brigham Young, the first governor of the Utah Territory, came into the valley, he noted: “This is the right place, drive on,” 171 years ago.

The governor added:  “This is still the right place, and we are driving on. The gold example for the rest of the nation.”